Scott MacKay Commentary: On The Two Conventions, Clinton Vs. Trump

Jul 25, 2016

  The Republican National Convention that nominated Donald Trump is history. The Democratic convention that is poised to tap Hillary Clinton begins today. 

RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay takes a look back at the Cleveland confab and a look ahead to Philadelphia.

Donald Trump roared out of the convention with a gloomy flourish, depicting a faltering nation faced with a perilous world. His themes were the usual Trumpian boasts: that our country is threatened by illegal immigrants; trade deals that have eroded the lives of workers;   wars that have spilled American blood, wasted American treasure and produced disastrous results; and the streets of a nation rendered unsafe amid a bloodbath against police.

There was little nuance in Trump’s message. Yet he did embrace themes that conservative Republicans have relied on for decades. His isolationism revolves around the trope of `America First,’ recalling the 1930s appeasers of German aggression led by Charles Lindbergh. Trumps’ law and order refrain reprised Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign. His anti-immigrant rhetoric harkens to nativist Republican policies of the Back-to-Normal 1920s, when the federal government shut down immigration to southern  Europeans, particularly Italians, Greeks and Portuguese.

What Trump’s convention lacked was unity and optimism. There was little of the sunniness that endeared so many voters to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. There was no `morning in America’ in Trump’s address. No references to John Winthrop’s `shining city on a hill.’ At most conventions, Democratic or Republican, the nominee usually makes a plea for delegates  and voters to unite and utters phrases such as `we can do things together. Trump said he can do it.

Most conventions do their best to show off a unified party, even, as at the 1980 Democratic confab, the wounds of the primaries haven’t healed. (Combatants Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter never really made peace; the result was a Reagan victory). Unity took a back seat at Trump’s convention. It seemed the lone thing that delegates agreed on is animus toward  Clinton. ``Lock her up,’’ was the most memorable of the floor chants.

Now, it’s up to Democrats gathering in Philly to counter Trump’s  message. First, they need to bring their party together after a spirited nomination joust between Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Tad Devine, the Rhode Islander who is a top Sanders operative, says there are still hard feelings among some Sanders supporters. Yet he is confident the two sides will come together as the Sanders forces win progressive platform planks and get changes in the super delegate system so loathed by the Vermont senator.

Watch for a decrease in the number of super delegates as the convention forges rules for the 2020 election. And don’t be surprised if the new rules make it difficult to court super delegates far in advance of the early primaries and caucuses.

The Rhode Island delegation is staying in the same hotel as delegates from the other New England states that backed Sanders – Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Lauren Niedel, a Sanders delegate from Glocester, says she hasn’t committed to supporting Clinton until she sees how Sanders is treated in Philly. She says it’s essential that Sanders supporters are allowed a roll-call vote. Echoing Devine, she also says the Clinton campaign needs to embrace Sanders campaign stances through the platform.

On the more pragmatic side is Sanders delegate Josh Miller, a liberal state senator from Cranston. Miller says he is a bit frustrated with some of the hard-core Sanders delegates. At this point, Miller says, the goal of the convention should be to fall in line behind Clinton and ensure that Trump doesn’t become president.

Miller uses an example from the 2000 election as a cautionary tale for Sanders supporters considering a vote for the Green Party’s Jill Stein. In New Hampshire that year, roughly 25,000 voters cast ballots for third-party candidate Ralph Nader. Democrat Al Gore lost the state by about 7,000 votes to Republican George W. Bush. Had Gore carried the Granite State, he would have gone over the top in the Electoral College. There would have been no Florida recount and arguably, no Iraq War.

Joseph Paolino Jr., is a former Providence mayor and U.S. Ambassador. A confidante of Bill and Hillary Clinton for decades, his focus is on a Hillary Clinton theme of unity. ``She needs a unifying message for America. He (Trump) is a divisive guy. She needs to show not only that she can unify the party and bring in the Sanders people, but that she can unify America.''

Democrats also need to reintroduce their candidate to voters, particularly suburban independents in swing states, who will decide the November election. This is tricky because it is difficult to change perceptions of a candidate who has been in the spotlight and media swirl for decades.  But Hillary Clinton needs to forge a message that speaks to disaffected voters who have not done well  in the global economy.  As well as galvanize the party’s traditional supporters- organized labor, black and Latino voters and educated women.

Democrats also need to comprehend the new realities of electoral politics in 2016. People who have been left behind by the economy have real grievances. How she speaks to these folks may well determine her chances.

Clinton may be the pre-campaign favorite. But in this summer of discontent we know – the presidential election is nowhere near a done deal for either Clinton or Trump.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our On Politics blog at RIPR.org