Tuesday, July 26, 2016

DemCon Day One: YES SHE CAN! (But She's Not the First Lady who is Running for President)

We’re back with Day One of the Democratic Convention, in which the real First Lady delivered a spectacular speech using her very own words. Good news for Melania, who now has a new speech to crib from.

I know that a powerful, passionate, exceptionally smart woman who first became known to the American people as our First Lady is about to be the first woman nominated by a major U.S. party as their candidate for president.

I am just not sure it is the right one.

As she did in 2008 and 2012, Michelle Obama rocked the Democratic Convention last night, clearly the top gun among a roster of party superstars. In the imagery of parenting, role models, and children-rearing in the White House fish bowl, she found the perfect, honest, original (ouch, Melania!), and wholly authentic way to contrast her values, those of her husband, and those of Hillary Clinton with the Republican whose name she did not deign to mention.  Michelle Obama is a powerful, strong, original, authentic woman. Geez, I thought… if only more Republicans would steal ideas from her.

It’s a very good thing that Michelle Obama brought her “A” game last night. Great that Corey Booker also excelled in a speech that reminded people of another emerging young charismatic African American voice back at the 2004 convention.  Elizabeth Warren was good but not at her best, and Bernie Sanders checked all the boxes he needed to check. A strong showing by this cast was made essential, however, by the toxic events leading up to the convention.

As of last Saturday morning, there was every reason for Democrats to look forward to their convention in Philadelphia, upbeat and confident.

The Republican Convention that had just concluded in Cleveland was broadly panned; it was flawed by amateurish organizational failures, Melania Trump’s humiliating plagiarism scandal, a public snub of the candidate by Ted Cruz, and four days of a relentlessly over-the-top tone of darkness, anger, and hostility. The value of Donald Trump’s four most passionate and articulate endorsements was diminished by the fact that they were all given by someone also named Trump. Fact-checkers lunched lavishly on Trump’s inaccurate accounting of America under Obama. The only thing missing was a Neil Young rewrite of his classic lyrics (“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, four days in Ohio!”), and the Trumpublican 2016 Convention would have achieved its rendezvous with yesteryear.

The rancor of the Republican Party seemed to be the perfect backdrop for the supposedly newly united Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton had made hyooooooge concessions to Bernie Sanders on his key platform planks in order to secure his endorsement before the convention.

On Saturday, Tim Kaine was well-received as Hillary’s choice for running mate. The selection of the vanilla nice Kaine telegraphed the campaign’s confidence; there was no perceived need to make a “high risk/high potential reward” pick like Warren or Booker.

Things seemed to be in really good shape for the Blue Team en route to the city of Brotherly Love.

Ah, but this is the Democratic Party.  For the eight years of No Drama Obama, the Party’s core DNA had been forcibly repressed like a Ritalin kid tethered in the back seat for the entire ride to Six Flags.  Hillary Clinton had tried to tame the monster, but deep down, the Party of Chaos was dry kindling looking for a match.  If you are looking for experts on how to botch a good thing, who you gonna call? Victory Busters! This is, after all, the party that in 2000 was riding on eight years of surging prosperity, no foreign wars, and spectacular technological innovation… and still managed to lose to a guy who once said “The vast majority of our imports come from outside the country."   

About the only good news about the DNC email leak is that it did not involve Hillary Clinton’s private server. Thousands of emails were hacked by Wiki-Leaks, revealing embarrassing exchanges that showed that members of the Democratic National Committee were gaming how to sabotage Bernie’s campaign.

On Friday there had been legions of Bernie Babies just on the cusp of almost sorta kinda thinkin’ about maybe this one time accepting that just maybe – maybe – they ought to get in line behind Hillary. By Saturday, they were once again in open revolt.

It is an age-old truth that the gaffes that hurt the most are those that reinforce a core narrative about a candidate. In this case, the idea that the Democratic Party organization was plotting to undermine the Bernie Sanders campaign pressed every negative button about Hillary Clinton: that she is above the rules, that the rules are rigged in her favor, that the establishment was screwing the insurgent, that Hillary can’t be trusted.  By Sunday morning, the damage control squad was working overtime, but Bernie’s gang were simmering in the Philadelphia heat and looking for a floor fight.

Then came the news that Trump’s supposedly awful convention had actually resulted in a six point “bounce” in the polls, putting him ahead of Clinton in the albeit largely meaningless national polls. That news hit Philadelphia like an insufficiently anesthetized colonoscopy, causing liberals to realize yet again just how much they don’t understand Trump and his supporters. A plagiarized convention pummeled by a snub-nosed Cruz missile that climaxed in a Heart of Darkness acceptance speech could lead to plus six points on the big board?

Ah, but there they go again. Their huge party about to begin, the Democrats needed only a weekend to make lemons out of lemonade.

Help, however, was on the way. Unlike the Republicans, who were scraping gum off Cleveland sidewalks in search of recognizable names to speak for Trump, the Democrats sent so many A-Listers and real-deal human interest stories up to the stage that I thought the podium was a celebrity Pokemon Go destination.

In the early evening, the Democrats presented a series of articulate, likeable, and highly sympathetic flesh and blood targets of Donald Trump’s bigotry and deceit: A young woman who was personally the victim of a Trump University scam; a person with disabilities spoke after repeated video replays of Trump’s horrific mimicry of Times Reporter Serge Kovaleski; a woman whose parents were illegal immigrants spoke of the human impact that the deportation of eleven million people would have on families and children.

Unfortunately, these riveting and stirring stories gave way to allegedly professional entertainers, who proceeded to let the air seep out of the balloon. Al Franken demonstrated that he is now actually better as a Senator than as a comedian. And Sarah Silverman thought it would be clever if she told the Bernie hold-outs that they “are being ridiculous.” Did I mention something above about kindling looking for a match? Thanks, Sarah.

Just as the stench from Silverman’s brain-fart was seeping out into the arena, Paul Simon was introduced to sing the suddenly extremely appropriate “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” Note to Paul: if Bernie can make up with Hillary, you may want to get over it with Art. That song requires octaves you haven’t visited since Graceland.

Somehow not soothed by the mediocre rendering of ancient music by an aging multimillionaire white guy, the Bernie-babies were frothing when – just in the nick of time -- a bit of true convention magic happened.

Corey Booker, the immensely personable senator from New Jersey, snapped, crackled and popped onto the national stage last night, delivering a soaring speech that may have been the most comprehensive and inspirational “why vote Democrat” speech of the last decade. Booker warmed up with a few scalpel-sharp cuts into Donald Trump (“he says thing about women that he would never accept another man saying about his own wife…”), and then launched into a rich, full-throated articulation of the beliefs that unify Democrats and that Hillary Clinton has championed. If the Bernie insurgency was still sounding off in the arena, it was invisible; certainly so to the audience viewing from home.

Booker is a powerful speaker; but he has that rare gift of rhetorical genius for cadence, tempo, and modulation. He created a staircase of ever-elevated endorsements of Clinton by beginning each succeeding phase with an emphatic, “She knows!” Later, he quoted from Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise…”

“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

… And proceeded to build to a climax echoing her poem by using the phrase “We will rise!”

Booker hit a home run, and set the table for the Superstar.

It’s sort of a tragedy that Melania Trump did not simply come right out and say, “and now I would like to quote a passage from Michelle Obama.” What a moment that would have been; melting the robotic rigidity of Trump Trophy III. Hey, Melania… it’s o.k. …. Even people who don’t like Barack think Michelle is about as cool as it gets.

Michelle Obama chose the theme of being a parent in a life in full public view as a highly engaging way to deliver sharp zingers at the man whose name she never mentioned.

She spoke of how she and her husband have spent the past eight years constantly aware that their words and actions would be immensely influential on a generation of children. “Our words and our actions matter,” she said, lifting a word that has recently signaled polarization into a new context.

“When they go low,” she said, likely in reference to the birthers who question her husband’s citizenship and the zealots who questioned his religion, “We go high.”

Michelle Obama found a graceful transition in praising Hillary Clinton as a mother who raised a child “to perfection.” What was interesting -- given a history of rough moments with Hillary -- was her genuine admiration for Clinton. “When she did not win the (2008) nomination, she did not become angry or disillusioned. She did not pack up and go home. As a public servant, she knows this is so much more important…”

She made a thinly-veiled contrast between Clinton and Trump in describing the kind of President she wanted for her children.  The issues we face are complex, she said, and “cannot be boiled down to 140 characters.” “You cannot have a thin skin or lash out.”

That her endorsement of Hillary Clinton was total, complete, and unalloyed was not a surprise: a Clinton victory is vital for Obama’s legacy. What was striking was the degree to which Michelle Obama seemed to be putting herself on the line on the one word that most haunts Hillary Clinton: trust. Placing her entire speech in the context of her own children enabled her to make as emphatic an endorsement as one can imagine, as she essentially was saying the she trusted Hillary Clinton to be President in the world that her children – and children everywhere – would live in.

Michelle Obama ended at 10:24, and by the time she ended her speech, the emotional high for the evening had crested.

Elizabeth Warren found herself sandwiched between Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders, and – perhaps as a result – she did not command the crowd as she so often does. It did not help that she led with the charge that “the system is rigged,” which was originally Sanders' signature line, and then co-opted by Trump. It has therefore a campaign message for just about everybody except Hillary Clinton... and a good many people think she is the one doing the rigging. Coming 24 hours after the DNC email scandal – which was arguably a good example of the system being “rigged” – Warren seemed uncharacteristically tone deaf for someone charged with delivering the convention’s keynote.

At a point when most East Coast Time people feel mostly exhausted, it was finally time to Feel the Bern. Bernie Sanders walked on stage at 10:50 p.m. and bathed in an exceptionally warm four minute ovation.

For a crusty old goat who has seemingly spent the past year cherishing his role as a sharp spike in Hillary Clinton’s spleen, Bernie Sanders stood up and did what he had to do last night.  He coddled his following with one last Bernie stadium speech for old time’s sake, right down to the schtick about average donation being twenty seven dollars!!

But that is what he had to do. He had to remind his faithful of their cause; he needed to indulge himself, and all of them, in one last trip around the bases. Who cares if the Dems had grooved him a 70 mile per hour fast ball down the center of the plate; everyone needed him to hit the home run.

Sanders said what he needed to say: he emphatically concluded that “Hillary Clinton will make an outstanding President and I am proud to stand with her tonight.”

After the emotional carnage of the DNC email scandal, it remains to be seen whether Sanders even has the power to line up his troops to fight for the Clinton Army. But he did make the full-on endorsement of Hillary Clinton, and by 11:22, the Democratic Party looked almost… almost… united.

In the end, the question is not whether it is Bernie Sanders’ job to deposit his faithful throngs into Hillary Clinton’s needy arms.

So far, the leadership of the Democratic Party has done all it can do to bring the party together behind her… and we have not even yet heard from Bill Clinton, VP candidate Tim Kaine, or the Commander in Chief himself.

But even after those speeches, there is one person who must personally win over the Bernie Babies. One person who must take the game to Trump. One person who must win this election, which is shaping up to be the most brutal in American history.

Can she do it?

I sure want to believe the answer is yes, she can.


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