If you follow politics, you’ll notice there are certain watchwords that tie together the media coverage. When all 17 of the Republican contenders were bunched at the starting line to Iowa, everyone was talking about what “lane” each would take. After Donald Trump bested the field, talk turned to how he would “pivot” at the Republican convention.
On Monday, the Democrats met in Philadelphia, and all the reporters could talk about was the “heavy lift” Hillary Clinton will have. As Trump’s dark and desultory acceptance speech demonstrated, her first job at this convention is to lift the spirits of America.
News commentators like to measure the mood of the nation in “right track/wrong track” poll numbers. The latest show 69% of Americans think we are on the wrong track. But that figure is misleading.
In the 45 years since George Gallop first asked the question, Americans have almost* never believed the country was on the right track. Today’s number is right around where it usually is, and things could be a lot worse. In October 2008, at the height of the economic collapse, 91% of Americans thought we were on the wrong track.
When Donald Trump announced his candidacy a year ago, 62% of Americans thought our country was on the wrong track. The seven-point rise is nothing special, especially if you consider four of those points have come in the last 20 days — after Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge and Nice.
When someone (hopefully it’s a human) calls you with a political poll, you are probably not expecting the question. But you do your best to answer. How’s it going? Not great. Could things be better? Yeah. The problem with right track/wrong track polls is that they call for a cerebral response to what is, at its core, an emotion.
For a statistician, the sum of these answers –– if you have enough of them –– over a long period of time yields some very useful data. But how many people hang up the phone, finish watching the Cubs win and think to themselves, “This is our year!”
Happiness is Illusive
Happiness is hard to measure. But it was readily apparent Saturday when Hillary Clinton introduced her running mate Tim Kaine in Miami. The rollout was everything Trump’s introduction of Mike Pence was not. It was joyful, upbeat, and packed to the rafters with all the colors of America’s rainbow population. Hillary never looked better and the guy behind her with the happy-as-a-clam smile on his face looked like he belonged there.
She introduced Kaine in 17 minutes. (It took Trump 28 minutes before he brought on What’s His Name.) While Hillary sat on a stool paying rapt attention, Kaine regaled the crowd with anecdotes about his improbable – aren’t they all improbable? – rise from son of an iron worker to the nomination for the second highest office in the land.
He talked of his victories as a civil rights lawyer. He slipped fluently back and forth between English and Spanish — a language he learned as a Jesuit missionary in Honduras. He boasted of his 9-0 record in past elections for mayor, governor and senator in Virginia and his greatest victory: marrying Anne Holton, now the state secretary of education.
(Her pedigree is also impressive, and noteworthy: She is the daughter of Linwood Holton, the legendary Republican governor of Virginia who integrated the state public schools, and her elementary school was among the first in Richmond to mix races.)
James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, tweeted out that this was the most impressive introduction of a politician he’d ever seen, and Andrea Mitchell called it “a home run.” After he finished, Kaine could have taken three laps around the bases before the crowd roar of the crowd died down.
But the euphoria was short-lived. While Clinton and Kaine were parading around the stage, WikiLeaks was releasing 20,000 private emails hacked off the Democratic National Committee server. They showed party officials taking potshots at Bernie Sanders and, in effect, trying to “tip the scales” to make Hillary Clinton their nominee.
The controversy ricocheted around the Sunday morning talk shows. On CNN, Sanders pooh-poohed the revelation as nothing he didn’t already know. When Tapper baited him with a question abut whether he agreed with Hillary’s choice of Kaine over Sen. Elizabeth Warren, he said, “Look, we’re Democrats. We disagree. But even on his worst, worst, worst day, Tim Kaine is a thousand times better than Donald Trump.”
By Sunday night, DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was gone, but Sanders supporters were not easily mollified. At a rally Monday morning, Sanders himself was roundly booed when he previewed his Clinton endorsement.
It was under this cloud of controversy that the Democrats convened, and the onus was on First Lady Michelle Obama to help Hillary bend the arc of public opinion from the wrong track to the right one.
To get to the headline, Michelle killed it. Her choice as the primetime leadoff had been a no-brainer. She is not only a popular first lady (with a 68% approval rating) but as the world now knows, her family values inspired Melania Trump’s (verbatim).
She brought those values to bear on her 7½ years experience living in the White House, from seeing her daughters go off for their first day of school in two black SUV’s surrounded by men with guns (“What have done?”) to seeing the eldest graduate from high school.
She spoke of the important role parents play as role models. “With every word we utter, with every action we take, we know our kids are watching us,” she said, and that responsibility carries over into politics “because our words and our actions matter, not just to our girls, but to children across the country.”
This opened the door for her to lavish praise on Hillary for her “lifelong devotion to our nation’s children” and, not so subtly, stick the knife into her opponent. “I want someone who knows this job and takes it seriously. Someone who understands that the issues the president faces are not black and white and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters.”
“It was an incredible speech,” Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s campaign manager in 2008, quipped on MSNBC. “Maybe we’ll see it again at the next Republican convention.”
What mattered beyond the words – those Obamas sure know how to give speeches — was that Michelle set the tone for the Clinton vs. Trump match-up to come. This will not be an election over which candidate is worse. Or so she hopes. “It’s about one thing and one thing only. It’s about leaving something better for our kids.”
It’s All Show Business
On the way to Michelle’s oration, a string of Hollywood entertainers graced the stage. Demi Lovato talked about her mental illness (a bi-polar disorder) before singing “Confident.” Comedians Al Franken and Sarah Silverman introduced Paul Simon to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” And actress Eva Longoria brought on New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
Franken and Silverman gave the convention its first real “moment.” They appeared together to deliver a unity theme, but Silverman had the heavier load. She had been a rabid Sanders supporter. She said she was still feeling the Bern — “but I have some aloe to take care of that” – and now wanted to come together to defeat Trump.
When a stagehand signaled them to stretch while Simon got to the stage, she ad-libbed. “Can I just say to the Bernie or bust people? You’re being ridiculous.”
Up to that point, the convention had been a textbook lesson in orchestrated messaging. Speaker after speaker rose to explain why “I’m with Hillary.” Some spoke of Hillary passions (child welfare, disabilities, women’s rights). Others told of how they were victimized by Trump’s business schemes. The last was a Texas widow who enrolled in Trump U.
Silverman’s outburst seemed to break the icy standoff on the convention floor for those that followed, and Cory Booker took full advantage.
His job was to make the case that Trump’s behavior toward women, minorities, and pretty much all his fellow citizens ran against the grain of American values.
Midway through his speech, he invoked Maya Angelou’s poem “We Will Rise”:
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I rise.”
He spoke of an America that could turn the corner from despair to aspiration, but only if all its parts working in unison. It was a stemwinder of a speech that bears comparison to Barack Obama’s at the 2004 Democratic convention.
“This is our history: escaped slaves, knowing that liberty is not secure for some until it’s secure for all, sometimes hungry, often hunted, in dark woods and deep swamps, they looked up to the North Star and said with a determined whisper, American, we will rise,” he said.
“King pointed to a mountain top, Kennedy pointed to the moon – from Seneca Falls to the Stonewall Inn, giants stood and said in a chorus of conviction, we will rise.”
“My fellow Americans, we cannot fall into complacency or indifference about this election, because still the only thing necessary for evil to be triumphant is for good people to do nothing.”
And, “Here in Philadelphia, let us declare again that we will be a free people. Free from fear and intimidation. Let us declare that we are a nation of interdependence, and that in America love always trumps hate. Let us declare, so that generations yet unborn can hear us. We are the United States of America; our best days are ahead of us.”
Later, Elizabeth Warren would do her usual Trump takedown, and Sanders would end the evening with his own call for unity. But both sounded like politicians. Sanders, in particular, disappointed. Maybe because he was at the end of a long day – and he had been revising his remarks right up to the end — his “full-throated” endorsement of Clinton sounded tired, rasping and perfunctory.
I watched the proceedings looking to glean some insight into why Hillary Clinton was chosen to lead this Democratic party. It wasn’t until the middle of Booker’s speech that I found it.
“I’m with Hillary” may be one of the lamest political slogans in modern politics. It’s certainly no match for “Make America Great Again.” Hillary’s charisma is no match for Trump’s, and she’s not an inspiring speaker.
But she’s not running for president as America’s savior, she’s running as the party standard bearer. Her strength is the army of people behind her. They’re the ones who will vote in this election. She’s just carrying the flag.
A NOTE ON COVERAGE. I’m watching this convention on TV from the couch in my living room. CNN and MSNBC are doing yeoman’s work out on the floor. But if you are watching on Fox News, you’re not watching the Democratic convention at all. You’re seeing three news celebrities – Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly and Sean Hannity – polish their images with in-studio commentary that borders on inane.
The Fox cameras are rarely pointed at the podium, and the floor reporters appear only occasionally to remind people the show is coming from Philadelphia. Fox News is all about its stars, their opinions, their rightness.
It was sad to watch O’Reilly hector Charles Krauthammer over whether he didn’t agree that Trump would be harder on ISIS than Clinton. (“I don’t know,” Krauthammer responded. “I don’t know what he’d do.”) But Hannity is the worst. As the convention gaveled to a close, he was holding a lovefest with Donald Trump. It was shameful.
* CORRECTION: I originally wrote “never” but “almost never” is more accurate. There have been brief moments when right track numbers peaked over 50%: 1984-1986 when we were coming out of a punishing recession; 1991 when the cold war was ending; and the last years of the Clinton/first years of George Bush administrations. (1998-2002). America’s last and most optimistic moment, ironically, came only a month after 9/11 (71%). I regret the error.