After two weeks down in the trenches at the political conventions, it’s time to pull back and try for a panoramic view of both. What did they achieve? Highlights, lowlights?
For Democrats, the highlight was the nomination of a smart and experienced — if not entirely trustworthy — woman who’d paid her dues (and then some) and waited eight years to be the nominee. Hillary Clinton’s top surrogates — the president, first lady, husband Bill, and VP Joe Biden — were all outstanding speaking on her behalf. VP nominee Tim Kaine said he “trusted her” with his Marine Corps son’s life. Former New York Michael Bloomberg, an independent, called Trump a “dangerous demagogue” and urged Americans to vote for “a sane, competent person.” Not a ringing endorsement, but better than none at all.
Hillary’s own acceptance speech was workmanlike, merely OK, She checked off all the requisite boxes, stroking the many constituencies that make up the Democratic Party. But it wasn’t particularly warm or personal, nothing in it that caused a lump in your throat. She didn’t admit to any errors of judgment about her private email server or anything else. Sorry is the hardest word for Hillary. Admitting error of any kind would have gone a long way toward healing the trust problem. Her latest campaign mantra — “Stronger Together” — also needs to be honed. Stronger for exactly what?
Donald Trump’s message, in its perverse way, is brilliant. “Let’s Make America Great Again.” Pithy and to the point. But is the America he’s evoking the one where white people naturally prevailed, Negroes knew their place, gay people were closeted and women stayed home to raise kids and be housewives? Kind of looks that way. But elections are always about the future.
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In Cleveland, Trump and his allies painted a bleak, dystopian view of America and its place in the world. Our military, he said, is a “disaster.” Our trade deals were made by “stupid people.” ISIS and other terrorist groups are running amok in the Middle East and Europe and our “bad generals” can’t figure out a winning strategy. “I alone can fix it,” Trump proclaimed, surely the most narcissistic, egomaniacal claim a presidential candidate has made in our lifetime.
President Obama shrewdly seized on that line, arguing that Trump’s impulses are autocratic, not democratic. “We’re not a fragile, fearful people,” the president said, “We don’t look to be ruled.” Precisely. The president hit the right note of qualified optimism in his speech. His analysis of what ails the country and what will cure it was Jeffersonian: The way to solve problems with democracy is more democracy.
This GOP convention was an unmitigated downer. I left Cleveland in need of Prozac. The speeches by the mothers of a couple of U.S. servicemen killed in Benghazi were heart-piercing, but allowing them to speak and attack Clinton personally amounted to crass political exploitation of their personal tragedies. Cleveland itself was surprisingly attractive and hospitable, but getting to and from the Quicken Loan Arena was a scene out of a Mad Max movie. Media buses shuttled us, with a Secret Service agent riding shotgun, down a wide street narrowed to a single lane surrounded by a high steel mesh fence with numerous police check points. Credentials were courteously but closely examined at every turn. No wonder demonstrators didn’t do any serious damage; they couldn’t get within 1,000 yards of the Q.
The most electrifying moment in Philadelphia was the speech by Khizr Kahn, the father of an Army Capt. Humayun Khan, killed in Iraq as he stepped forward to protect his men and stop a suicide bomber. “You have sacrificed nothing and nobody,” Kahn said and the arena erupted. Trump’s response, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, showed how insensitive, intemperate and self-absorbed Trump is. Instead of offering his condolences to the Khans and honoring their son’s sacrifice, Trump said Ghazala Khan didn’t speak because she’s a Muslim. Asked what he’s sacrificed for the country, Trump said he’d hired “tens of thousands” of people and put up some big buildings. This from a Vietnam draft dodger.
Trump’s self-serving comments set off a firestorm of criticism, including a scathing statement from John McCain. Just as LBJ knew he had lost Vietnam when Walter Cronkite came out against the war, so too Trump may have lost the election by disrespecting the parents of an American military hero. It may be an early tipping point.
But the race has barely begun. We will watch what happens closely for the next three months because the country’s future is at stake. The kind of country we have is at stake. And we can’t take our eyes off Trump. It’s like driving by a bad accident and trying to look away, but stealing a glance and seeing the carnage. Awful but unavoidable.
After Trump spoke, they cranked up the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What you Want.” That’s the one with the line, “But if you try sometime you find/You get what you need.”
After Clinton spoke, the Democrats did not, for a change, play “Happy Days are Here Again.” Right, they’re not.