American politics changed, seemingly irrevocably, in 1984. I remember it well. Ronald Reagan was running for re-election, and his campaign released the famous “Morning in America” video. If you weren’t around then, you can’t know, but it had seemed permanent midnight four years before, and one ushered in by the Democratic Party. Inflation, Rust Belt decline, crime, the Iranian hostage crisis—all happened on the Democrats’ watch.
Along came Reagan. He didn’t make everything work, God knows. But he did make a majority of Americans believe in America again. And ever since, that’s been the default position of our political discourse: Republicans believe in American greatness, and Democrats denigrate it.
That is what changed this week, and it’s seismic.
Donald Trump, and the millions who voted for him, turned the Republican Party into a party of rage about America. They spoke last week in Cleveland, and spoke and spoke and spoke, about a country that has stage-four cancer. The Democrats spoke about a country that surely faces problems and challenges, but a country that has to and will choose optimism and hope.
If it’s Morning in America today, it’s a Democratic one. The Republicans are now the party of permanent midnight.
I don’t know that I’ve ever heard thousands of Democrats chant “USA! USA!” Certainly not in the 1970s, which is what gave Reagan his opening. This week, though, the Democrats have chanted it over and over.
It’s been a beautifully stage-managed convention. This isn’t my spin, this is an honest reaction to what I’ve watched. It has surprised me consistently every night, from a party that hasn’t usually done this all that well. And the reason it’s been well stage-managed is that it hasn’t been just Democratic elected officials who’ve sung from the hymnal. It’s been Americans. It’s been victims of the 9/11 attacks, mothers of black citizens killed by cops; and it’s also been less usual suspects for Democrats—cops, police chiefs, veterans, military leaders, ministers, and the parents of veterans, especially Khizr Khan, the father of Capt. Humayun S. M. Khan, a Muslim American who sacrificed his life in Iraq for his fellow American soldiers.
I’m sure, Mr. Trump, he said, you’ve never actually read the Constitution. “I will gladly lend you my copy,” offered the immigrant from the United Arab Emirates. Wow.
In those ways, the convention worked extremely well. The “regular people” part didn’t just press the predictable buttons—it pushed unpredictable ones, too, and the unpredictable ones are the only ones that add real value. The same can be said, more or less, of the “famous people” part. And here I refer mainly to Mike Bloomberg’s speech. It’s my bet that Bloomberg, lukewarm on him though Democrats may be, delivered the speech that will have the most impact of all of them over the next 15 weeks. His mere presence surely impressed non-Democrats watching. If he follows that speech up with some campaigning or at least one great commercial—he knows all about that; Rudy Giuliani made one for him in 2001 that basically got Bloomberg elected mayor—he can make a meaningful difference in this election.
But as pivotal as that optimism is, it isn’t really the main work this convention needed to accomplish. This convention needed to establish that Hillary can be trusted, and that she and her party will run the economy well. If there’s one poll result that’s stopped me in my tracks over the last couple months, it’s the one showing that people trust Trump more than Clinton to deal with the economy. I can’t conceive of how anybody could answer “Trump” to that question. But somehow they do. I guess they just believe what they see on TV.
I don’t think the convention as a whole, or she personally, quite did enough to flip that perception. That might prove to be a huge missed opportunity. Donald Trump, economic steward? That’s about as serious a proposition to me as Donald Trump, racial healer. That point of attack got a little lost, all week. To be sure, she laid out a progressive economic agenda. But it didn’t feel to me as central as should have felt. It felt a little more like a box being checked. They’re going to need to think about this going forward. If those who-can-help-the-economy polls don’t change by November, she’ll have trouble.
On the trust thing, this week was somewhat more successful, I think. It didn’t take on the email issue directly, which no convention would have done. But it did show Americans other sides of her. Gen. John Allen’s testimony was pivotal, and so was Chelsea’s, for that matter, just describing her as a normal loving mother, which one-third of America doesn’t think she has the capability of being. I’m not sure it will move public opinion immediately, but the convention seemed to open a window that had been closed tight. We’ll see.
Except for the whiny Berniac-no-answers minority, which was a decided minority and which ultimately didn’t make much of a difference, this was about as good a week as the Democrats could have hoped for. They changed the historical default position of the last 32 years. That’s two generations. It’s a big, big deal.
But: They changed that position in behalf of a candidate that a lot of America still feels hinky about. Americans want to choose optimism, but they’re more likely to choose it when they feel confident that they have a captain who can steer them toward that shore. The next 15 weeks are about turning Hillary into that captain.