By the time tens of thousands of red, white and blue balloons cascaded down on Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine at the end of the Democratic National Convention, history had been made, political shots had been fired and the general election had begun.
Democrats held a far more conventional convention this week in Philadelphia than Republicans did last week in Cleveland — an expected contrast reflecting the differences between Clinton, the establishment Democratic presidential nominee, and Donald Trump, her insurgent Republican counterpart.
Philadelphia, however, still managed to deliver an astonishing amount of news for such a scripted event. Taken together, it’s difficult to remember another pair of recent conventions quite as tumultuous. If conventions are supposed to present a sort of dialogue between the nation’s top two political parties, then what Cleveland and Philadelphia offered was more of a shouting match — in which each side yelled completely past the other.
Welcome to the ‘anti’ election. Both candidates know many voters don’t want to be for Clinton or for Trump. No matter. Perhaps they’ll be persuaded to be against one or the other.
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Some of Clinton’s sharpest lines in her Thursday acceptance speech came at Trump’s expense:
“A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man you can trust with nuclear weapons.”
“He spoke 70-odd minutes — and I do mean odd.”
“It was just hard to fathom that somebody who wants to lead our nation could say those things, could be like that, but here’s the sad truth: There is no other Trump.”
Trump responded in kind Friday morning, critiquing Clinton’s speech — and style — on Twitter.
“Crooked Hillary made up facts about me, and ‘forgot’ to mention the many problems of our country, in her very average scream!” he wrote.
How much ugliness voters will take remains an open question. Negative political campaigns tend to depress turnout, repelling voters from the polls, and low turnout tends to favor Republicans — which may explain why Democrats took such pains to strike positive notes in Philadelphia and declare, playing on words, that “love trumps hate.”
Democrats usurped the Republican establishment’s message. Filling the political void left by the GOP elite’s skittishness on Trump, Democrats adopted the pitch and tone of past Republican campaigns, promoting the sort of optimism and American exceptionalism put forth by Ronald Reagan. (A week earlier, Republicans had gone with the anti-Clinton chant, “Lock her up!”)
Clinton chided Reagan’s party for abandoning the former president’s “Morning in America” campaign slogan in favor of “Midnight in America.” President Barack Obama made a distinction between being Republican and being conservative, saying the GOP convention was neither — and making a direct appeal to Republicans who believe principled conservatism should take precedence over party loyalty. A pair of Republicans even spoke on Clinton’s behalf.
“I knew Ronald Reagan. I worked for Ronald Reagan,” said former Reagan speechwriter Doug Elmets. “Donald Trump, you are no Ronald Reagan.”
Trump and his campaign countered Democrats led by Obama are promoting a political fantasy.
“You know, his beautiful world,” Trump said at an Iowa rally Thursday. “He doesn’t talk about radical Islamic terrorism. He doesn’t talk about the fact that people don’t want to fly on airplanes and that people don’t want to go to theaters. He doesn’t talk about what’s going on.”
Hardcore Bernie Sanders believers won’t go quietly. Democrats delighted in pulling off a highly produced, made-for-TV convention with Washington and Hollywood star power unmatched on the Republican side.
Yet the party couldn’t control what happened off stage — and a lot did. Trump may have had to sit through Ted Cruz’s jaw-dropping non-endorsement inside the Cleveland arena, but Clinton had to speak over stray heckling from protesters who had spent the previous days in Philadelphia staging walkouts and sit-ins and booing retired military brass, the former defense secretary, a Medal of Honor recipient and a religious prayer.
Party leaders did what they could to put out the fires. But even Sanders’ impassioned speech, his unexpected visits to delegate breakfasts and motion to nominate Clinton by acclamation weren’t enough for a small, committed group of followers who demonstrated on a daily basis outside City Hall carrying “Bernie or Bust,” “Still Bernie” and “Never Hillary” signs.
The knives came out for Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The convention marked Wasserman Schultz’s final four days as Democratic National Committee chairwoman. They weren’t very good ones.
Unrelenting jeers at a Monday breakfast for Florida delegates shook Wasserman Schultz and persuaded her not to appear in public in Philadelphia after a leaked-email scandal forced her party-leadership ouster a day before the start of the convention.
She spent the rest of the week holed up in a private Wells Fargo Center suite, fending off rumors that she planned to fly home as story after story citing mostly anonymous sources blasted her leadership. On Thursday, she showed up to accept an award from the National Jewish Democratic Council award and, still defiant, suggested she had taken a hit for the Democratic team by resigning, according to the Palm Beach Post.
“Sometimes you have to take one for the team, and that’s OK,” she said.
Now Wasserman Schultz faces her first primary challenger for Congress in 24 years. Though for now she’s not expected to lose, she can’t afford to be abandoned by the same party honchos who made little effort to defend her before her resignation.