WASHINGTON, Aug. 5, 2016 — The political conventions are four days of free political advertising. They help or hurt the nominees to the extent that the party manages to craft a message and launch a compelling narrative, but choosing a nominee is not what the conventions are about.
This year’s victors were decided by June. Lacking suspense, the conventions did at least offer some surprises: Ted Cruz’s non-endorsement of Donald Trump and the walkout of Bernie Sanders’ supporters.
The Democratic convention focused on four positive themes: hope, the Democratic promise, the humanization of Hillary Clinton,= and unity.
“Hope” has been a Democratic mantra for decades; it was a central message of the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama campaigns. There were promises galore for Democratic policies, ranging from free education to good jobs to better infrastructure. Bill and Chelsea Clinton devoted their time on stage to reminding us that the stiff and grating policy wonk is a loving mom and a doting grandma, and she was the pretty girl who captured a future president’s heart.
The fourth theme focused on an immediate problem: Bernie Sanders.
More precisely, the problem was his supporters, inside the convention arena and out. Many were furious over the Wikileaks revelations proving what they’d been saying all along: The DNC was in the bag for Clinton. Clinton was forced to walk a fine line between appealing to Sanders’ supporters and not moving too far from the center or repudiating central policies of the Obama administration like TPP and the Affordable Care Act.
Sanders was given the prime-time, keynote speaking position at the convention. The party platform included some of his pet proposals, like free college tuition. DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned, and after being drowned out by booing delegates at a breakfast, she abandoned her speaking role at the convention.
In the end, through Sanders’ appeals to delegates, careful camera angles and strong-arm tactics, unity was achieved.
There was a fifth theme, but a negative one: the awfulness of Darth Trump. The Democrats might have taken their inspiration from “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.”
Luke Skywalker: I won’t fail you! I’m not afraid!
Yoda: Oh, you will be. You will be!
The problem facing the Democrats is that Clinton is no Jedi. For many voters, this year’s election is a struggle between two Sith Lords. If Clinton is more attractive than Trump, is that because she’s the oily Palpatine to Trump’s out-in-the-open Sith-ness?
What’s beneath the façade? What will she look like as empress?
Democrats say the message at the GOP convention was one of fear: It’s midnight in America, Clinton will plunge us deeper into the night, and only Trump can save us from the abyss. Trump is a fearmonger. But despite that critique and despite their theme of hope, the Democrats have decided to fight fear with fear. Post-convention, the four positive themes are sidelined for the One Theme to rule them all: Fear.
America’s institutions are weak; they are so weak that we’re but one election away from dictatorship, or nuclear war or the complete dismantlement of every progressive law, regulation and agency created since the New Deal. The Republican Congress is corrupt. It gets nothing done and will enable Trump. Only Hillary can save America from the abyss!
The hypocrisy is as exquisite as it is brazen. It’s made greater by the fact that the DNC worked mightily to ensure that Sanders, who could have won in a landslide with never a mention of Trump, would not be the nominee. They chose Clinton, who may very well win, but who is so damaged that she will only do it by appealing to our fears.
“Let me be your Mafia Godmother, your protection, your Evita. Let me be your Palpatine!”
Will that sell? Of course it will. Trump, after all, is unabashedly the stuff of nightmares, out and proud and in your face. He has let his vanity be pricked and allowed his thin skin to be cut over and over again, lashing out when he would have been better served by silence, his mouth unguarded by his brain. He is probably the only candidate the GOP could have chosen who could be defeated by Clinton. He’s the beast who makes Hillary look like a beauty—okay, he makes her less ugly—and the only one who could.
But he could also defeat her. If they’re going to ensure that doesn’t happen, the Democrats need to remember their four positive themes. If they remain on the dark side, then no matter who wins the election, America will lose.