Because the Democratic Convention followed the GOP Convention, held in Cleveland last week, we have more of a basis to contrast the two, both in style, substance and tone. Thus far, the Democrat events could not look more different, and this difference goes to a sharply contrasting vision of both the current state of our union and the direction for the future.
One of the most easily drawn contrasts is the amount of A-list establishment talent at the Democratic event. Both the current and former two-term Democratic presidents will speak at the Democratic Convention. Bill Clinton remains widely popular among Democrats, despite some troubling historical baggage. Hampering Bill Clinton’s appeal are the sordid Monica Lewinsky affair and his (and Hillary Clinton’s) support for the now-discredited movement towards mass incarceration. These issues are likely to generate some controversy among the Democratic base, especially among African-Americans, who have suffered the brunt of what some may see as a problem (crime) whose solution (mass incarceration) may have created more problems than it actually solved.
The thing is, the other A-list speaker, President Barack Obama, will no doubt attempt to contrast Trump’s gloom-and-doom vision of America with a message of hope. One of the things Obama is likely to highlight is that, as opposed to the world of lawlessness and insecurity Donald Trump tried to paint, crime in America is really at a 40-year low. Ironically, much of the reason for the decline in crime may stem from increased law enforcement and, yes, the lengthy incarceration of criminals, enacted by the first Clinton regime.
Although Hillary Clinton benefits from more unity than the Republicans witnessed last week—with Ted Cruz explicitly directing voters to consider “their conscience” as an alternative to voting for the GOP nominee—in the current political climate, that does not necessarily work in her favor. Or as much in her favor as the ordinary calculus might predict. Trump’s success in the Republican Primary and the strong insurgent campaign of Bernie Sanders both signal that 2016 is truly the year of the outsider. That is, there are potential cracks in the Clinton-Obama coalition that Trump has been able to capitalize on to great effect.
On the other hand, if Clinton is able to convince a wider cross-section of voters that Trump’s vision belies reality, that we are not, in fact, on the precipice of a crisis of economy and security, she may be able to effectively capitalize on her insider status. It will be important for her to highlight the progress America has made over the past eight years, including achieving full employment from an all-time low, increased home ownership and lower energy prices, contrasted with sky-high prices at the end of the Bush administration.
But here’s where the calculus gets a bit weird. None of the Bushes attended or spoke at the GOP Convention, and so pinning the problems of the Great Recession on the GOP will be harder to do than if Republicans had been able to mount a traditional line-up of establishment politicians at the GOP Convention. Republicans may be able to evade the implied accusation that will be inherent in Clinton’s appeal to the status quo—that if voters choose a Republican the country will be thrown back into economic turmoil—by pointing out that none of the architects of the Great Recession is currently even on the national scene.
Both Clinton and Trump face favorability issues that are perhaps unprecedented in the history of presidential election campaigns. Clinton’s latest unfavorables come in at approximately 55 percent (according to the latest average of major polls) and Trump’s unfavorables come in at approximately 60 percent (according to an average of the polls). Both candidates obviously face an uphill battle in convincing uncommitted voters, but the sense is that Clinton needs to attract independents in large numbers, whereas Trump has to close the deal with mainstream Republicans, who are in better shape but still not effectively unified coming out of the GOP Convention.
Perhaps the greatest contrast is Clinton’s focus on the victims of police violence—the convention schedule features several prominent appearances by the mothers of Black men killed by police—and Trump’s focus on “law and order.” The issue of safety and security is shaping up to be a major unpredicted fault line in American politics this season. It is also a broad issue, extending to include not only police-community relations but also foreign policy. Expect Clinton to try to play up Trump’s maverick foreign policy approach of essentially restricting America’s commitment to NATO as a major blunder that distances America from our allies and actually weakens American security.
Insider vs. outsider; stronger together vs. America first—these competing visions are becoming more sharply defined as the campaign season matures. Part of the job of conventions is to unify the party going forward. The other major job is to broaden the base. The GOP Convention was primarily concerned with unifying a fractured party, with scant attention on broadening the base. The Democratic Convention will be more focused on broadening the base and unifying the country. It remains to be seen which approach will be more effective in producing an electoral victory in the fall.