DNC Day Two: Optics and Message

I didn’t attend the second day of the Democratic convention. This turned out to be fortuitous, because yesterday brought a dramatic change in optics best appreciated on television. As late as yesterday afternoon, questions remained about whether Democrats could nominate Hillary Clinton without sparking a rebellion by Sanders loyalists. Their solution was to choreograph a roll call of the states without showing the tally to the delegates, preventing an awkward and potentially divisive response when Clinton clinched the nomination. Sanders’ home state of Vermont would end the roll call with a celebration of their favorite son, who would rise to ask that the official tally be recorded—preserving for posterity a record of his large delegate presence—and that Hillary Clinton be nominated by acclamation.

Not only did this compromise work to prevent all but a handful of hardline Sanders supporters from bolting, it produced a dramatic and moving spectacle. As leaders of each state delegation rose to declare their votes, Sanders and Clinton were praised together—he for the contributions of his movement and she for the historic nature of what was about to transpire. It had the feel of looking forward. There was a palpable sense of transition for the campaigns, the convention and the country. Bernie’s campaign was ending but the Bern would continue to be felt outside the electoral process, leaving the convention to appreciate with appropriate reverence what it was about to do. It culminated in a moment of magnanimity, when an emotional Sanders—who had been so broadly criticized for his recalcitrance in recent weeks—moved to unify the convention around his opponent before departing the arena, permitting the assembled delegates to celebrate the moment when a woman was nominated by a major political party to be president of the United States.

From that point on, it was Hillary’s convention. Her husband offered a testimonial in the time-honored fashion of the candidate’s spouse, speaking not as a former president but as a potential First Gentleman, and if his wispy account of their romance at times seemed discordant with their well-known personal trials, it signaled the start of what promises to be an intensive effort to reintroduce and reframe one of the most well-known people on earth. With a cheering, apparently unified convention as his backdrop, Bill Clinton pushed two themes: the Hillary people think they know is a cartoon version of the real thing, and the real thing is a relentless agent of change. The Clinton campaign understands how opinions on these two points pose the largest remaining obstacles to Hillary’s election. She is seen as personally untrustworthy by a historically large number of voters and as a privileged member of the political class in a year defined by rebellion against elites. The rest of the convention will be devoted to challenging both perceptions.

How far the Clinton campaign can move public opinion on these two entrenched images will depend on how effectively they can manage the optics of her candidacy and on the substantive positions she advances. There was a brief blow-up when close Clinton ally Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said the candidate will reverse a key promise and renew her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership after the election—a claim rapidly disputed by the campaign and then walked back by McAuliffe. The statement was explosive given the number of “No TPP” placards in the hall on Monday, and this is precisely the kind of mixed messaging that plays to the most widely articulated fears of Bernie’s supporters: that Hillary’s word will not hold once she no longer needs their votes. Of course that issue feeds back to the problem she has with trust.

In the long run, how strongly Clinton advocates for her platform, which in important respects is now derived from Bernie’s platform, will determine how convincingly she can reposition herself as a fighter against the establishment she represents. For the next two days, however, the case will be made emotionally through testimonials and symbolism. Tuesday’s session ended with a video montage of the lineage of male presidents that ended with the image of shattering glass yielding to a live feed of the woman who hours before became the nominee. The message was unambiguous, and a crowd that on Monday had booed every mention of her name roared its approval.

When I leave later this morning for the Wells Fargo Center, I will be returning to a different convention than the one I left late Monday night.