On Tuesday, former supporters of Bernie Sanders made headlines by walking out of the Democratic National Convention to protest the nomination of Hillary Clinton. Some occupied the media tent. Others joined demonstrators outside and sought to burn an American flag and, failing to find one, torched an Israeli one instead. Meanwhile, inside the convention hall, former President Bill Clinton spoke in support of his wife and regaled the assembled delegates with the story of how she had adopted an Israeli pre-K program for American use.
The contrast between the Democrats applauding inside the convention and the protesters rioting outside was not coincidental. If the Democratic primary campaign reflected an attempt by the far left to take over the party in the form of Sanders’s candidacy, the Democratic convention reflected the mainstream’s reassertion of itself with a vengeance. After an opening day spent mollifying Sanders supporters—who booed even their own candidate when he endorsed Hillary Clinton—the convention pivoted to a bold appeal to the American center, leaving the most radical voices in the dust.
Clinton’s speech was just the beginning. On Wednesday night, a succession of Democratic speakers from Joe Biden to Barack Obama systematically appropriated the touchstones of Republican discourse and turned them to Democratic ends. Traditionally GOP strengths became liberal ones, from national security to religion to patriotism. By the time Obama was done with his address, conservative intellectuals and officials were marveling at how he’d co-opted their narrative.
“American exceptionalism and greatness, shining city on hill, founding documents, etc.—they’re trying to take all our stuff,” tweeted National Review Editor Rich Lowry. “Take about five paragraphs out of that Obama speech and it could have been a Reagan speech,” said John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary. “Trust me. I know.” (Podhoretz is a former Reagan speechwriter.) “Watching Democrats talk about America the way Republican candidates used to talk about America,” lamented Tony Fratto, former deputy press secretary to George W. Bush.
These reactions were not hyperbolic. Consider three traditionally Republican talking points that were woven into the night’s speeches:
National security. For decades, the GOP has owned this issue, whether it comes to supporting the American military, fighting terrorism, or dealing with despots. Back in 2004, Democrats were so worried about George W. Bush’s advantages on this score that they nominated decorated war veteran John Kerry in an attempt to negate it. He famously opened his convention acceptance speech with “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty,” throwing in an actual salute for good measure.
But in this election, Donald Trump has completely vacated the battlefield on national security. He has threatened to compel American servicemen to commit war crimes, derided war hero John McCain for being captured and imprisoned, and praised dictators from Saddam Hussein to Kim Jong-un to Vladimir Putin. This week, Trump even encouraged the latter’s regime to hack his political opponent Hillary Clinton. He’s also threatened to break up NATO, said he might not protect its members from Russian aggression, and attacked the European Union, thus imperiling two American-backed projects to keep the peace abroad.
Trump’s stances on foreign policy have been so alarming that nearly all of the Republican party’s national security apparatus has condemned them, with many signing an open letter declaring Trump “utterly unfitted to the office” of president. Remarkably, some former Bush and Reagan officials are actively backing Hillary Clinton.
Last night, Democrats took this opening and pounced. “No major-party nominee in the history of this nation has ever known less and been less prepared to handle our national security,” thundered Vice President Joe Biden. “We cannot elect a man who belittles our closest allies while embracing dictators like Vladimir Putin.”
Hours later, Obama drove the point home. “Donald Trump calls our military a disaster,” he noted. “Apparently, he doesn’t know the men and women who make up the strongest fighting force the world has ever known. He suggests America is weak. He must not hear the billions of men and women and children, from the Baltics to Burma, who still look to America to be the light of freedom and dignity and human rights.” It was a patriotic peroration worthy of Reagan, and the sort of broadside that Republicans have been leveling at Democrats for years. “Ronald Reagan called America ‘a shining city on a hill,’ Donald Trump calls it ‘a divided crime scene’ that only he can fix,” Obama went on, turning his subtext into text.
Religion. Faith and family have long been another area of Republican dominance—at least until they nominated a twice-divorced serial philanderer for president in 2016. Trump, now the standard-bearer of the party of most of America’s evangelical Christians, infamously bungled his biblical citations when he spoke at the evangelical Liberty University. He has appeared on the cover of Playboy, bragged about his infidelities, and said he doesn’t believe in heaven or hell.
Amazingly, the original text of Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention did not even end with the traditional “God bless America” or contain any mention of God at all. In the end, Trump ad-libbed a “God bless you,” but still made no reference to America. By contrast, last night, Obama did not forget the traditional closing.
Likewise, Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine spoke in detail about his education by Jesuits and his work as a Catholic missionary. He extolled the virtues of “faith, family, and work,” called his religion “a North Star for orienting my life,” and nodded to the Bible when he said, “We’re all neighbors, and we must love our neighbors as ourselves.” Current VP Joe Biden closed his rousing address with, “God willing, Hillary Clinton will write the next chapter in [our] journey. We are America, second to none, and we own the finish line. Don’t forget it. God bless you all, and may God protect our troops.”
Patriotism. As lines like Biden’s make clear, the Democratic National Convention was a deeply patriotic affair. When several lone, far-left delegates attempted to chant “no more war” over former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta’s indictment of Trump, the convention drowned them out with chants of “USA! USA! USA!” The chant would recur multiple times that evening.
Biden struck a sharp contrast to Trump’s dark and pessimistic rhetoric about an America that “doesn’t win anymore” and is full of crime, freeloaders, and threats. “We have the finest fighting force in the world,” the vice president proclaimed. “Not only do we have the largest economy in the world, we have the strongest economy in the world. We have the most productive workers in the world. And given a fair shot, given a fair chance, Americans have never, ever, ever, ever, ever let the country down. Never!”
Obama closed with his signature brand of progressive patriotism. “What makes us American, what makes us patriots, is what’s in here,” he said, hand over his heart. “That’s what matters. That’s why we can take the food and music and holidays and styles of other countries, and blend it into something uniquely our own. That’s why we can attract strivers and entrepreneurs from around the globe to build new factories and create new industries here. That’s why our military can look the way it does, every shade of humanity, forged into common service. That’s why anyone who threatens our values, whether fascists or communists or jihadists or homegrown demagogues, will always fail in the end. That’s America. Those bonds of affection, that common creed.”
Simply put, rather than repudiate Republican values, the Democrats repudiated Trump while embracing those values. It was a shrewd political play designed to reach out to disaffected conservative voters who detest Trump. These individuals might not be ready now to pull the lever for Hillary, but come November, such centrist appeals—coupled with the pressure of Trump’s many missteps—may erode their resistance.
In this way, Obama and the DNC repositioned the Democrats as the party of the sensible center. They rejected the narrow rhetoric of the far-left protesters both inside and outside the convention hall. They appropriated those traditionally Republican values that Donald Trump had left by the wayside. And they redefined and assimilated those qualities into a progressive agenda.
It was a smart play given that there are far more moderate voters than far-left ones. But it was also the patriotic play, given that such rhetoric unites Americans rather than divides them, and seeks to win the 2016 election with a broad centrist majority rather than a slimmer radical one.
Expect this trend to continue when Hillary Clinton takes the stage tonight to accept her party’s nomination.