The Democratic Convention: a move towards party unity and republican outreach

The Democratic Convention: a move towards party unity and republican outreach

Those watching the Democratic National Convention were treated to moving speeches delivered by Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and President Barack Obama. By contrast Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech did not approach the high oratorical skill of her advocates but was workmanlike and competent. More importantly she did succeeded in reaching out to many traditional Democratic constituencies and Republicans disaffected by Donald Trump.

The introduction of new themes

The four-day spectacle was somewhat unusual for Democrats as it featured themes and appeals more often found in Republican conventions. The speakers, beginning with Joe Biden, focused on a sort of nationalism and optimism based in the oft stated trope that America is the Greatest Country in the World. The claim that naturally followed was that even though the situation may be looking bleak at the moment, the resources of the US and its people will enable the country to succeed in solving any remaining problems. When President Obama reinforced and added to the Vice President’s optimistic claims commentators compared his speech to Ronald Reagan’s description of America as a “Shining City on a Hill”. In fact, former Reagan speechwriters offered the comparison while Rich Lowry, Editor of the conservative “National Review” said “they’re trying to steal all our stuff”.

There was even a clear appeal to the faith community in a moving speech by Rev. William Barber II, head of the North Carolina NAACP. In his work he has sought to reclaim appeals to faith and Christian values from those on the right like Rev. Jerry Falwell.

He gave a moving speech that drew from scripture to remind people of the Christian commitment to the poor and vulnerable. He called for a change of values based on morality to serve as the very heart of democracy. It was essential to including all Americans in the nation’s work. One reason that the speech was so moving was that it was delivered in the cadence of the Southern Black church and was concluded with a cry of Hallelujah that was joined by all those assembled.

The “City on a Hill” appeal is drawn directly from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It was held by early Puritans to offer a model of Christian charity. America as a “City on a Hill” has often been linked to America as “God’s country” and is therefore associated with American Exceptionalism.

A left turn for the Democratic Party?

While this convention offered a case study in creation of civil religion to move an audience to believe in the rightness of the American enterprise, it was also used to advance the left of center Democratic platform negotiated by the Clinton and Sanders campaigns. This platform allowed Sanders to use many of his most cherished political positions as a basis of support for a Clinton presidency. That he did so on the first day of the convention helped to offset the initial dissent by Sanders delegates that grew out of the WikiLeaks distribution of emails and other communications at the Democratic National Committee offices. These revelations showed that the DNC staff was actively supporting Clinton over Sanders while they were supposed to be neutral. Since many Sanders delegates had already suspected that the primary elections were rigged the leak offered real evidence. The discord explained why even Sanders was booed by some of his own delegates when he endorsed Clinton.

Interestingly the head of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schulz was booed offstage during an early address to her own state delegation and ultimately forced to resign. At first she was going to be allowed to address the convention at the outset and also on the closing day, but feelings were running so high that others convinced not to do so and to resign immediately. Since she had been a long-time friend and supporter of Clinton’s she was nearly immediately offered a role as the honorary head of the campaign’s 50 state effort that is designed to get other Democrats elected. This further upset those who were opposed to Wasserman Schultz’ proven bias during the primaries.

Despite the dissatisfaction of some Sanders supporters and some demonstrations outside the hall the convention moved forward into a well-orchestrated whole later during the first day. The mechanics of a roll call vote, platform approval, and approval of the report of the platform committee moved right along. There was a virtual parade of speeches and performances that appealed to many delegates and their tastes. Stars like Paul Simon, Boyz to Men, and Sarah Silverman offered respite from the string of high level congressmen, labor leaders, and party officials who spoke to Democratic commitment to labor, families, racial equality, gun control and other key issues. Silverman was onstage with Senator Al Franken. She spoke at length about how she had supported Sanders and his movement. When she also spoke of Hillary’s opposition to the Supreme Courts Citizens United ruling and other liberal positions she was booed by Sanders supporters. She in turn told them that they were “ridiculous”.

High-level speeches and a well-organized show of strength

Michele Obama’s speech spoke of the President’s commitment to family and social justice. It was a warm speech that ultimately humanized a president well respected by other Democrats. She was warmly received with no booing from the audience. Senator Elizabeth Warren also spoke on the first day and was warmly received by both Clinton and Sanders supporters as she trounced Trump.

Speeches by Bill Clinton and the Mothers of the Movement stood out during the second day.

Clinton told a personal story about courting Hillary and eventually moved on to documenting her effectiveness in advancing social justice and change. The Mothers of the Movement spoke about gun violence against their children and how other children should not suffer the same fate.

The third day was headlined by Joe Biden’s unabashedly patriotic speech about the accomplishments of America, and provided an optimistic vision of the country’s future. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg outlined Trump’s failures and deficits as a businessman. He concluded that “If Trump runs the country like he did his business god help us”.  This drew cheers from the audience.

President Obama also provided a summary of American accomplishments but also spoke of Hillary’s contributions as Secretary of State and her overall preparation and qualifications to be president.

The last night included an endorsement by retired Marine Corps General John R. Allen who raised concerns about Donald Trump’s potential impact on national security. He was surrounded by a veterans group

Day four concluded with Chelsea Clinton introducing Hillary and Hillary’s acceptance speech mentioned earlier.

The Democratic Party opted for optimism

On a basic level it was a very well organized convention with lots of stars and Democratic political leaders warmly endorsing Hillary. On an analytical level it was clearly designed to include optimism, patriotism, dedication to the high quality of the military, and respect for diversity in order to draw a wide base.

Since it also had a sometimes religious tone one cannot reject the notion that the convention was designed to earn Hillary converts from the Sanders left and the Republican mainstream. It would appear by recent polling that a majority of Sanders supporters will vote for her, and some mainstream Republicans may cross party lines. Despite a tough start it seems that this convention was a success.


Categories: North America, Politics

About Author

Lawrence Katzenstein

Lawrence Katzenstein has taught at the University of New Orleans and the University of Minnesota. Through an affiliation with the Humphrey Institute he was one of the trainers for the initial Chinese WTO delegation. He has been an exchange professor at the Consolidated Universities of Shandong Province and an embedded social scientist with the U.S. Army in Iraq. He earned a B.A. in political science from CCNY and an M.A. and Ph.D in political science from Rutgers University. While at the University of Minnesota he also completed a teaching post doc in International Business.