What to watch for at the Democratic National Convention
PHILADELPHIA — The Democratic National Convention kicks off Monday here in Philly. And while the DNC will probably make a fairly dull contrast with the absolute disaster zone that preceded it at the Republican convention in Cleveland last week, the Dems still have some potential for drama and intrigue.
Now, despite the somewhat acrimonious primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and Sunday's surprise resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democrats are still a basically functioning political party. It's a safe bet that the major speeches will not feature any plagiarism, nobody will call for Donald Trump to be shot to death, and unlike Ted Cruz, Sanders will formally endorse Clinton during his address.
There are several reasons for this. For one, the Democratic elite is temperamentally cautious, verging on timid, and Clinton is the most cautious of the lot — as evidenced by her plain yogurt choice of Tim Kaine as running mate . After the mess in Cleveland, Democrats will seek to appear safe, respectable, and small-c conservative — which should be extremely easy.
I'll be covering the convention for The Week. Here's what I'll be watching for here in Philadelphia.
The first thing to keep in mind is the major fault line in the Democratic Party — the split between liberals and leftists, most recently seen in the resignation of Wasserman Schultz, who will officially step down after the convention. The party leader is supposed to be neutral between competing primary candidates, but a recent email leak revealed that she had actively intrigued against Sanders (surprising precisely no one, but it was still damning evidence).
This tension will certainly be palpable here in Philly. Black Lives Matter activists, anti-Clinton leftists, supporters of the Green Party's Jill Stein, and more factions will appear here to raise their particular issues or slam Clinton for her extensive history of cynical centrist policy.
However, unlike the GOP convention, such disputes will almost certainly not make it to the upper levels of the Democratic elite.
Sanders, for the moment the leader of the left-wing Democratic faction and the most important leftist in the Western Hemisphere, is widely disliked among his Democratic colleagues for not being a loyal team player. But while he is extraordinarily stubborn, and has worked against Clintonite triangulation for his entire career, he is no Ted Cruz. Sanders is a committed leftist concerned above all with advancing policy and ideology (which means, as often as not, fighting the Democratic leadership), not an oleaginous weasel whose titanic self-regard and ambition inspire a personal, nearly murderous hatred among his own GOP Senate colleagues. It's an important difference.
When running for a major party nomination (as opposed to mounting a third-party run), the implicit bargain is that the losers will support the winner. Had Sanders won, he would have been fully justified to demand Clinton's endorsement and the support of her followers. That is why, though he did it through gritted teeth, he finally granted her his endorsement.
Furthermore, Clinton, for all her many faults, is not a terrifying presidential prospect (save perhaps if you live in the Middle East or North Africa). She is a status quo politician, for better and for worse. She does not do things like casually threaten to abandon the Baltic republics to potential Russian predation. The Democrats have a boring neoliberal sellout candidate; Republicans have a Putinesque maniac who is consuming the party from the inside.
Seen so, it doesn't make sense for Sanders to mount a last-ditch third-party run or betray Clinton by withdrawing his endorsement. He played the inside game, and lost, but not by much — and given his tremendous support among young people, there is every reason to think Sanders-style politics will win handily in the next matchup. One battle has been lost, but as soon as Trump is put away, the contest between liberals and leftists will return.
Speeches and spectacle
Most of the proceedings this week — the procedural arcana, the numerous speeches from the usual roster of minor party officials and well-scrubbed examples from all the big Democratic demographics, and so on — will be pretty dull. Clinton herself is no great shakes at oratory, and I'd expect her to aim for competence rather than rhetorical heights during her speech on Thursday.
However, three speeches will be particularly worth watching. The first is Sanders, who got a prime-time slot on Monday. This is perhaps his best chance yet to sell his brand of politics, but his usual stump speech has gotten a little tired and rote over this primary. If he can freshen up his usual shtick in an interesting way, it should be a huge success.
The second is from Bill Clinton on Tuesday night, who despite all his flaws is an enormously compelling and charismatic speaker. Almost uniquely among national politicians, his rhetorical signature is explaining policy minutiae, and he's good at it. I'd expect him to give the best sales job possible for his wife's platform — and given her recent sharp improvements in the form of endorsing a public option for ObamaCare and a Medicare buy-in at age 55, it should be pretty convincing.
Finally, there is Barack Obama on Wednesday night. He does not quite have the animal magnetism of Bill Clinton, but he is without question the most talented orator of any national politician in the past half-century. His rhetorical signature is providing an optimistic and historically grounded analysis of difficult problems. Worn by the terrific burden of the presidency, but also gained in wisdom; still in the prime of life, and in full command of his abilities, there is no better person to confront the bizarre and alarming specter of Trump. It may well be the best speech he ever gives.