You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Democrats Lay Claim to Ronald Reagan’s Shining City

But where does that leave the progressive base, much less working-class voters?

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

On Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention, a couple hundred Bernie Sanders supporters staged a walkout after their candidate lost the roll-call vote for the presidential nomination. Instead of allowing the delegates’ seats to remain conspicuously empty in prime time, organizers pulled replacements from wherever they could find them, engaging in a seat-filling operation that put the Oscars to shame. (Note to Donald Trump: you could have done this, too.) 

Wednesday night’s program was aimed directly at the seat-fillers. After a front-loaded display of progressive values to kick off the convention, Elizabeth Warren and Jeff Merkley and Bernie Sanders were out of the way, and Democrats pivoted from appealing to the progressives in the room, and more to a thin sliver of undecided voters watching at home. And it was a particular type of undecided voter, too.

Put it this way: When convention organizers realized they were running out of time—as it was, Barack Obama didn’t wrap up until 11:45 p.m, well out of the prime-time window—they had to search the rundown of speakers to find someone to bump. Michael Bloomberg, the independent former mayor of New York City, gave his speech. Sherrod Brown, the populist senator from Ohio, didn’t.

Brown’s remarks were handed out to the press beforehand. (The assumption is that he will give them tonight, though that’s not confirmed.) They were about manufacturing, and how to bring economic vibrancy back to middle America, and how to restore the middle class. 

It wasn’t that kind of night. Instead, we got Bloomberg, who opened by saying that “many Democrats wrongly blame the private sector for our problems, and they stand in the way of action on education and deficit reduction.” The line was supposed to read “education reform,” incidentally—he swallowed that buzzword, amid a smattering of boos. 

Bloomberg, who mocked Trump’s business skills (the complaint appeared to be that Trump wasn’t an upstanding plutocrat like, I don’t know, Michael Bloomberg), did a capable job, if your goal was to reach a Republican-leaning office worker made queasy by the thought of Donald Trump. Of course, Trump has won over Republicans at rates commensurate to any other GOP candidate in the modern polarized political era, so it’s questionable whether those dissident Republicans exist in higher numbers than, say, base Democrats, or people in working-class towns who might not vote unless someone speaks to their struggles.

“Everyone knows that Donald Trump’s path to victory runs through towns like mine in the Monongahela Valley,” John Fetterman, the Democratic mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, told me yesterday. Fetterman lost a U.S. senate primary this year, but did well in the working-class areas in the western part of the state. “I disagree with David Plouffe that Trump will never win Pennsylvania. These communities have been through so much, that Trump’s message is the proverbial sand that looks like water.”  

I asked Fetterman what would help those communities, and he said that the only things that can make it better are things Democrats, not Trump, can bring, namely “attention, resources, and ideas.” He didn’t even get the first one on Wednesday night. Outside of a late name-check by Obama, very little mention of this other America made it to the main stage. “There are pockets of America that never recovered from factory closures,” Obama acknowledged—then quickly pivoted to how Trump, “a guy who’s spent his 70 years on this Earth showing no regard for working people,” would never champion “pocketbook issues.” 

The far more dominant theme of the night presented Democrats as a cosmopolitan, modern, governing coalition, ready and competent and capable—while marginalizing Trump as irresponsible and out of step with the more sensible wing of his own party.

The ideological case against Republicans and for Democrats is missing from this equation. Sure, there was a long section last night on gun safety, but even then, it’s around a narrow issue that have 90 percent public support—including from Republicans—and which frankly won’t do much to reduce gun violence. I heard a fair bit about how Hillary has plans she would “pay for,” and that Trump would precariously rack up debt. It wasn’t a night for the Keynesians, though Pete Peterson was probably smiling.

The speakers consistently put Trump dangerously outside the mainstream of his party. “Donald, you’re not fit to polish John McCain’s boots,” intoned Rear Admiral John Huston, defending the 2008 Republican nominee. A few minutes before, footage of the 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, appeared in a video of Republicans bashing Trump. 

Granted, you didn’t hear speakers echo the 2008 and 2012 Republican campaign platforms, the parts about cutting taxes and starving domestic spending and significantly building up the military and appointing judges who would ban abortions. But you did hear that Donald Trump (running on all of those same ideas, mind you) was somehow so alien, so different, that Republicans who voted for McCain and Romney should come over to Clinton’s side. 

Bloomberg spoke specifically to independents who find Clinton flawed but Trump morally repugnant. Vice President Joe Biden reclaimed patriotism—“It’s never been a good bet to bet against America!”—arguing that we are too strong and too durable to succumb to a demagogue. That was the second time chants of “USA! USA!” rang out; the first was during former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s speech, in response to Sanders agitators—some filled their own seats last night— chanting “No More War.”

In his acceptance speech, Tim Kaine, the vice-presidential nominee, contrasted America with Honduras, where he did his social justice work fresh out of college and “got a first-hand look at a system where a few people at the top had all the power and everyone else got left out.” He was talking about a dictatorial regime, but a lot of people think America is also such a place of concentrated power. Their perspective wasn’t shared Wednesday night.

Amid the dystopian nightmare sketched out by Trump, a little sunniness is fine—a defense of America and its values comes as a strange breath of fresh air. Indeed, Democrats are deliberately trying to claim the ground Ronald Reagan stood on, atop that shining city on a hill. But, when Trump tweeted during the night that “Our country does not feel great already to the millions of wonderful people living in poverty, violence and despair,” there was a kernel of truth to it.

In fact, President Obama, in his knockout speech to end the night, was among the few who tried to balance America’s greatness with things not being so great for a lot of Americans. “Yes we’ve still got more work to do … for everyone who hasn’t felt the progress of the last seven years,” Obama said after a preamble touting his achievements. But no problem: Hillary Clinton was ready to deliver, with the proper temperament and fitness for office.

Obama tagged the concerns of the left: “If you agree that there’s too much inequality in our economy and too much money in our politics, you all have to be as vocal and as organized and as persistent as Bernie Sanders supporters have been,” he said. Then he told those same people that they can’t sit out the election. (“Democracy is not a spectator sport.”)

I was left trying to figure out what Hillary Clinton would achieve with this coalition of Sanders supporters, mainstream Democrats, and mainstream Republicans she’s trying to build. There were vague nods to “real plans,” but they weren’t spelled out. There were agreements that Hillary is a problem-solver who will get things done, but little about what solutions those were, and what things she’ll do. There were criticisms of Trump for what he says, but not what his party stands for.

A convention that began with a tight argument about the solutions America needs devolved into fuzziness on Wednesday, for mass consumption and appeal. And even if these themes have short-term electoral benefits, they do little to build the party for the long haul.

All this is prelude to Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech tonight. Will she go after conservative ideas, and link Trump to the manifestation of them going back to Ronald Reagan? Or will she seek a big tent and put Trump outside it, uniting people of all parties under an unnamed mélange of warm feelings? At some point, Clinton needs to tell the nation what she’ll do, not merely who she won’t be. That’s her challenge tonight.