Day one of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia was all about healing, but the patients in need of therapy seemed to prefer their condition to treatment. The procedural portion of the day was devoted to an airing of grievances among Sanders supporters while the night was designed to provide them with catharsis and a means by which they could reconcile their remaining objections to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. To facilitate that purification process, Clinton brought in the biggest progressive guns she could: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders himself. Their performance was, to say the least, underwhelming, and it underscores the extent to which their reputations are utterly undeserved.
For much of the evening, the tension in the hall between Clinton and Sanders supporters was palpable. A small band of the self-described socialist’s backers did their best to inflate their numbers by being as obnoxious as possible; they booed, barked, chanted, and mocked every speaker and every mention of Clinton’s name.
It was still that tough, tense room when first lady Michelle Obama took the stage and delivered what many saw as a passionate, compelling, and transcendent speech. Mrs. Obama’s speech was powerful because it was almost entirely dedicated to reminding the voters in that room of their party’s true adversary in November. It was a subtle vivisection of the anxiety-fueled Trump movement. It was a patriotic defense of the virtues that make America great today, contradicting the downcast Trumpian account of a nation in terminal decline. It was emotional at times, resolute at others; funny when it should have been, and deadly serious when it needed to be. By the end of it, even the Sanders supporters who seemed dedicated to martyring of their dignity in protest had quit jeering.
Now, Michelle Obama is not exactly an obscure Democrat, but nor is she the progressive heroine that Elizabeth Warren has been made out to be. Nor is she Bernie Sanders, who, judging just from the blubbering puddles into which his supporters transformed last night, has attained near godlike perfection in the minds of his devotees. These two speakers were scheduled after Michelle Obama’s strong speech, and they proved that it was an impossible act to follow.
Warren was selected to deliver the keynote address on Monday—an honor that reflected both her support within the Democratic Party and her status as an anti-Trump attack dog. Her tone was marmish; her style subdued. Warren’s criticisms of Trump felt half-hearted—placeholders that were forced and designed to sate a frothing mob only long enough for her to get to the real meat of the speech: Financial regulatory reform! The stock market, corporate profits, student loans, banking restructuring, Medicare, Social Security, 401Ks, and, of course, campaign finance; these were the issues that excited Warren. The fire in the Massachusetts senator’s eyes lit up precisely as she was extinguishing it in those of her youthful, heartbroken audience.
Sanders, too, delivered a lackluster speech for all but those initiated into his flock. It was a boilerplate stump speech, a fact which was given away to those who are unfamiliar with the Vermont senator’s campaign trail rhetoric by the Sandernistas who virtually sing along with the most road-worn lines. When Sanders became truly fired up about the prospect of defeating Trump, he was focused on the downright false notion that the GOP nominee is a just another vanilla Republican. From health care to taxation to regulation, Sanders said that Trump represents the “same old Republican contempt for working families.”
This is remarkably lazy campaigning. Trump is no garden-variety Republican. He is not a hard-hearted supply-sider who is dedicated to reducing the tax burden on the rich. Quite the opposite, in fact. He has no interest in the culture wars; be they transgender bathrooms or abortion rights—Trump has demonstrated time and again that his instincts are, in fact, center-left. Every time a speaker tried to frame Trump as a standard Republican, they normalized his radically irregular policy preferences.
Those Democratic speakers who did take a bite out of Trump’s hide—the victims of his allegedly fraudulent schemes, the disabled who were wounded by his irresponsible rhetoric, the Democrats who dared suggest that America remains a first world nation—they damaged Trump’s image not by casting him as a typical Republican but as an unacceptable threat to cultural progress and social cohesion. Neither Warren nor Sanders pulled that message off.
The disappointing show put on by the Democratic Party’s so-called rock stars exposes the extent to which their personae are fabrications. Absent the help of an industry dedicated to erecting elaborate support structures designed to keep their absurd cults of personality aloft, these progressive heroes are shown to be the mediocre political talents they always were. In the same way that octogenarian Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg has attracted a transparently contrived following with all the circumspection and maturity of your average ‘tween, the compulsion among liberals to make idols out of outspoken progressives has become an unattractive habit. When those idols demonstrate how unworthy they are of the veneration they receive, it exposes their dedicated image-makers as dishonest. It’s about time, too.