In one sense, the Democrats had a very good convention in Philadelphia. Their line-up of speakers consisted of an array of well-known party figures, ‘stars’ even: Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden and President Obama. The Democrats also came across as much more knowledgeable and policy-fluent on domestic and world affairs than the details-lite Republicans. And in her final speech to the convention, Hillary Clinton set out her priorities in workmanlike fashion and rebuked Donald Trump with some zingy lines (‘He spoke for 70-odd minutes, and I do mean odd’).
But there were also signs that all is not well. The first days of the convention were marked by protests by Bernie Sanders supporters, who were so unhappy they even booed their man himself (to his apparent shock) when he suggested they get behind Hillary. After Sanders had spent six months or more telling his tribe that Clinton was thoroughly corrupt, it was perhaps not all that surprising that the Berners preferred chanting ‘Lock her up’ to ‘I’m with her’.
More importantly, there was a nagging sense that, for all of the high-end production values and rah-rah, the convention wasn’t enough to launch Clinton on the road to a sure victory over Trump in November. Deep down, they know that Clinton remains a flawed candidate, dogged by scandal and considered untrustworthy by many. In their minds, Trump is so outrageous (the latest evidence being his attack on the Muslim parents of an army captain who was killed in Iraq) that any leading Democrat figure should win in a landslide – and yet they see Hillary either behind or close to Trump in the latest polls.
One reason that Hillary is failing to connect is that she and her fellow Democrats do not have a coherent position on the past eight years of the Obama administration. One moment, they want to take credit for Obama and build on his work. The next moment, noting that a majority of Americans say the country is not on the right track, the Democrats say they will break with the past and take the nation in a different direction.
This dilemma was evident at the convention. When directly responding to Trump’s speech the week before, Democrats at the podium went to lengths to say the US had made tremendous progress and was already great. ‘I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves’, said Michelle Obama in a widely praised speech. But in their eagerness to reject Trump and say the US is doing fine, the Democrats risked coming across as content with the status quo. Critics were right to say Trump’s speech was ‘dark’ and over the top, but his message did seem to resonate with voters who feel events are out of their control.