If you’ve ever been in a city holding a national political convention, you know that there’s as much going on off the convention floor as on it. Last week, the City of Philadelphia was transformed into a giant political laboratory.
The media covered the small part of that activity which occurred on the streets. Supporters of Bernie Sanders were among those who engaged in demonstrations around City Hall as well as outside the Wells Fargo Center. From the video on television, you might have thought that Philadelphia was engulfed in protests but those demonstrations represented a very minor part of what was going on during the convention.
Sanders supporters were also heard throughout the convention itself, although that was mostly through chants and efforts to drown out speakers with whom they disagreed. Again, however, their numbers represented a small fraction of the attendees. Sarah Silverman said the words that captured the general mood when she observed that the Bernie or Bust people were “being ridiculous.”
What will those protesters do in November? Early indications are that a large portion of Sanders backers will come around to voting for Hillary Clinton. You might have gotten a different impression from the media hunt for people willing to say they would vote for someone else. I heard the same woman announce in two separate interviews that she would vote for Jill Stein. A disclaimer about her not being a representative sample would have been in order.
For anyone with a longer political memory, the experience of “protest” votes leading to a Republican victory–think George Bush in 2000 as the result of the votes for Ralph Nader in Florida or Richard Nixon in 1968 in the aftermath of a deeply divided Democratic Party–underscores the scary possibility that we could end up with Donald Trump as president.
Meanwhile, advocacy groups were holding events in every conceivable venue. They ranged from an outdoor rally at Logan Circle by organizations campaigning for commonsense gun regulations to receptions hosted by Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List and numerous environmental groups in museums and public sites throughout the city. I cite these specific examples because most of them didn’t have a presence in Cleveland the week before.
A political convention is, in addition to its formal task of nominating a presidential candidate, a combination pep rally, networking event and fundraiser. And if all that didn’t keep you fully occupied, there were also plenty of celebrity sightings. Unlike the Pope’s visit earlier in the year, with security so intense that many Philadelphians just left town, the Democratic Convention was more like a four-day festival for people of all ages, races and religions.
That reality on the ground in Philadelphia was a marked contrast to the Republican gathering in Cleveland. The televised versions of the two conventions told the same story as the rhetoric of the speakers. One party was overwhelmingly white and resentful of anyone who isn’t. The other spoke constantly of inclusion and reflected that value in those who attended.
Beyond the headliners, the Democrats showcased lots of ordinary people who had overcome adversity, whether health, poverty or other challenges, to speak to the importance of both individual effort and community support. The speech with perhaps the greatest political impact–because it provoked another ugly response from Trump–was that of Khirzr Khan a Muslim American whose son, a captain in the U.S. Army, was killed in Afghanistan. Just when you thought the Republican candidate couldn’t get any worse, he showed that there are no limits to his inhumanity.
A number of prominent Republicans have criticized Trump’s remarks but have been unwilling to go farther. Imagine if any of them–take Paul Ryan as an example–had the courage and integrity that Dr. Khan demonstrated in his remarks and in the days since then. A generation of Republican leaders runs the risk of being forever stained by the failure to stand up to a narcissistic bully who has hijacked their party.
And then there was Hillary Clinton’s speech. She is not a great orator and expectations were relatively low. Her speechwriters, who I don’t think moonlight for Melania Trump, crafted remarks that fit her style and allowed her to make an effective case without trying to be something she isn’t. Clinton knows public policy, cares about the details, has a real understanding of the world in which we live with its many dangerous challenges, and doesn’t propose bumper sticker solutions.
In an election, this latter quality could be a disadvantage unless voters take the trouble to educate themselves and not be seduced by quick fixes. Donald Trump is the master of the sound bite, truly believes than any coverage is good coverage, and can’t be pinned down on any issue because he has no positions beyond the vaguest of generalities.
The Republican candidate keeps demonstrating how little he knows about the challenges he would face as president even as some of his supporters bend themselves into contortions to dismiss that problem. Rudy Giuliani, surely one of the most divisive figures on the political scene today, suggested that Trump might be able to learn on the job. Even if you accepted that rationale for supporting a totally unqualified candidate, you’d have to deal with the reality that Trump has shown no inclination to learn about issues while campaigning.
Not long after the Cleveland convention, Trump publicly urged Russia, which may have been responsible for hacking the DNC computers, to hack and turn over Hillary Clinton’s missing State Department emails. Can you imagine the Republican response if Barack Obama had said anything similar to that? They would have drafted Articles of Impeachment the next day.
It truly was much sunnier in Philadelphia. You’d be hard pressed to pick out the best speech because so many of them were really well-delivered, inspiring, and substantive.
President Obama, surely one of the most gifted orators of our time, may well have been surpassed by his wife. Michelle Obama’s speech epitomized better than any other the difference between the two parties in both tone and substance.
We now have fewer than 100 days until an election that poses a fundamental choice about the future of America. It’s too early to pay much attention to public opinion polls. It’s too soon to make absolute assertions about what Bernie Sanders’ followers will do, but not too soon to be engaging them.
Besides waiting to see what the two campaigns will do, we also have to remember that events in the world, most of them outside our control, may influence the way in which voters see the contest.
This election is going to be determined more by turnout than by persuasion. The biggest enemy facing Hillary Clinton is not Donald Trump but the risk of apathy among her supporters. The other side of the turnout question is whether significant numbers of Republicans will conclude that Donald Trump is so anathema to their beliefs that they will either not vote or even do what many would never have imagined and vote for Clinton.
Another major unknown is whether the media will be able to pin Trump down, point out his shortcomings and misrepresentations and push for answers on his taxes and his dealings with Russia. He keeps complaining that the press is “mean” to him, but his campaign has received incredibly little close scrutiny up to now.
Finally, of course, the ultimate responsibility will reside, as it always does, with voters. Will they be motivated by fear and anger or by optimism and hope? Will they pay attention to what the candidates are saying rather than to how they as voters are feeling? And, perhaps most importantly, will they give serious thought to what kind of country they want to live in, one that is welcoming and inclusive or one that abandons the principles and values on which this country was founded in favor of a false sense of security?