After the Balloon Drop

by John Lawrence

The polls assessing Hillary Clinton’s post-convention “bounce” have yet to come out – I expect something modest, but ephemeral, just like the Trump bump last week – but there are a few take-aways worth noting from the 4-days of Democratic hoopla in the City of Brotherly Love.

For a meeting of hard-nosed politicos, there sure was a lot of talk about “love” — brotherly, sisterly, grandmotherly, and every other kind as well, which cast a message of acceptance and diversity much wider than at most conventions. Philly ’16 was all about playing to the base: making the substantial number of Sanders people feel appreciated, listened to, and courted, and for the most part, it seems to have been effective.

At the outset, it appeared as though the Sanderistas were adamantly cruising for a fight, even if they had to start one themselves. There is a “protest tradition” at Democratic conventions that seems to require that someone play this role, even when it has little rationale, like now, since the Clinton forces essentially capitulated on the platform, recognizing that a platform is short-lived, unread and unenforceable especially if (a) you lose or (b) you don’t win the down-ballot races essential to implement your platform. The main goal of any convention is to get the family together and charge them up for the fall campaign, and in that respect, you’d have to say the Democratic Convention was a considerable success (particularly compared to the Goth GOP gathering in Cleveland).

The major question for the Sanders forces, including Sanders himself, is their role going forward. This was Bernie’s first Democratic convention (unbelievably), and he has never been active in trying to elect Democrats to Congress or any other public office to effectuate his policy objectives. In Philadelphia, he promised to do so, but it remains to be seen whether he steers his supporters to more conventional political objectives. Will the Sanders supporters dive into grassroots political efforts to influence elections, as did the Tea Party following the 2008 election, or will they devolve into the role of critics who are more frustrated than effective? There is a big difference between “advocacy” and “politics”: “advocacy” is your telling me what you want; “politics” is your convincing me to do what you want. The former is easy, the latter a bit more of a challenge.

One effort emerging from the convention suggests some Sanders folks are heading down the road of self-satisfaction and ineffectuality. A group branding itself “Brand New Congress” has declared its intention “to spread the word about their goal to replace most members of Congress in two years. That means Democrats, as well as Republicans.” Presumably, this objective entails defeating any Democrats insufficiently wedded to far-left politics, regardless of the politics of their districts or their own personal views. Other than fostering the kind of polarizing, intemperate, adversarial politics that most Americans detest, such an effort wastes time and money that should be spent trying to build the Democratic congressional majority that produced two highly effective Congresses in 2007-2010 notwithstanding the inevitable diversity that comes with any congressional majority. The good news is that Politico reports “roughly 20 volunteers” involved with Brand New Congress; with any luck, their numbers and influence will remain right where they are today.

There was a fascinating dichotomy at the Convention: although the platform and most of the political speakers were decidedly from the Party’s left, the most riveting speeches were from three people who pretty clearly stated they were not particularly wedded to the Democratic Party but supported Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy anyway: Michael R. Bloomberg, a former Democrat, former Republican and now independent; Gen. John Allen, a four-star Marine general who warned that a Trump presidency represented “a dark place of discord and fear”; and Khizr Khan, whose Muslim son died fighting in Iraq, who thoughtfully offered Trump his personal copy of the U.S. Constitution.

These three speakers made the kind of compelling case for Clinton that invariably eludes politicians, who reflexively speak to their base. Their appeal signals the smart way for Sec. Clinton and Democrats to proceed this fall: don’t get too deeply into the policy weeds, differentiate between a tested, respected and mature leader and a dangerously inexperienced egotist, and most importantly, let others take the lead in trashing Trump, especially his fellow Republicans and, of course, Trump himself, through his own words.

When  Republicans like David Brooks, Paul Ryan, John Kasich, Joe Scarborough and Ted Cruz are excoriating the GOP nominee, stay out of the way and sound presidential! Asked if Trump was sounding perhaps a little too autocratic, the executive vice president of the Cato Institute – a group not normally associated with progressive politics – agreed: “I really don’t think that’s too over the top,” noting that Trump is “not even pretending — he is promising to be a one-man ruler.” Most importantly, David Boaz noted, Trump’s obsessive egotism and flippant dismissal of facts has the potential to encourage voters far beyond the Democratic base to choose Clinton.

As Trump demonstrated this week, he cannot restrain himself from saying things that, ideology aside, are shockingly inconsistent with someone running for President of the United States. While there was much coverage of the new email scandal – Russians hacking Democrats and leaking information, perhaps to assist Trump – a truly eye-blinking statement from the Republican nominee went virtually ignored. Asked if he would tell Vladimir Putin to stop hacking into American servers, the would-be President said, “I’m not going to tell Putin what to do. Why should I tell Putin what to do?” I’ll bet they drank an extra Stolichnaya in Moscow to that one!

Scene: The White House Situation Room, 2018

 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Mr. President, the Russians are expanding their threats against Poland and Croatia. We recommend a sharp rebuke to Putin. Remind him that we will respond to any violation of section 5 of the NATO treaty.”

President Trump: “I’m not going to tell Putin what to do. Why should I tell Putin what to do? Let’s fly Air Force One to Mar-a-Lago and hit the links.”

Trump seems unlikely to learn from such errors. Before the GOP convention, one Republican senator warned Trump he needed to change his style because “it wasn’t working for him.” Somehow, I think that message will have trouble penetrating Trump’s orange-encrusted head: his style seems to have “worked” effectively enough to vanquish 16 more skilled politicians (give or take a few, depending on how you characterize Ben Carson), win the Republican nomination, and draw pretty close to even with Clinton in current polls.

Trump’s unflagging faith in his own infallibility and his inability to present a presidential demeanor likely will be his undoing, much more than policy issues or ideology. The two commercials the Clinton campaign is running in battleground states, one showing adorable children appalled by Trump’s obscene public utterances, and other of the Republican hierarchy dismissing him as a know-nothing and dangerous braggart will do far more to influence independents and Republican voters than any critique Democrats could conjure up. When the conservative Republican Speaker of the House denounces the remarks of his own party’s nominee as racist, there’s a problem. Believe me, as Trump would say.

I was up on Capitol Hill yesterday walking past the Republican Club. In recent elections, the windows have been festooned with campaign posters: “Fire Pelosi,” “McCain-Palin,” “Romney-Ryan.” But yesterday, there weren’t any posters in the dozens of windows. Not one. The windows were as empty as Donald Trump’s ideas for how to govern, and just as transparent as his cynical and egotistical ambition. Let Trump be Trump, take nothing for granted (especially the debates), and hopefully (but not certainly), the American voter will make the intelligent choice.