As with Republicans last week in Cleveland, the first job of Democrats this week in Philadelphia is uniting party delegates behind a candidate many of them don’t like.
If television coverage of the first day of the Democratic National Convention showed anything, it was that Hillary Clinton will be a hard sell for some die-hard Bernie Sanders supporters.
Things got off to a rocky start when Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the party’s controversial chairman, was forced to resign in shame because of 20,000 stolen Democratic National Committee emails made public by WikiLeaks.
The tone of the emails made clear what Sanders supporters suspected: the supposedly neutral party apparatus was pulling for Clinton all along.
Many Sanders delegates were angry. They rejected their hero’s initial pleas for unity behind Clinton and marched in the streets with “Never Hillary” signs. You would have thought they were Republicans on their way home from Cleveland.
It was loud and unruly, but not as messy as the Republican’s opening-day anti-Trump floor fight. Still, when a minister giving the invocation mentioned Clinton’s name, it set off a sustained round of boos that forced her to pause her prayer.
When the boos continued during convention Chair Marcia Fudge’s opening remarks, she struck the tone of a middle school teacher. “I’m going to be respectful of you, and I want you to be respectful of me,” the Ohio congresswoman lectured. “We are all Democrats and we need to act like it.”
When comedian Sarah Silverman scolded Bernie-or-bust protesters as “ridiculous,” there were more boos. Paul Simon finally managed to calm things a bit by singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Never mind that his voice was shot.
Democrats have one advantage over Republicans: people with power in the party seem united behind the nominee, and they bent over backwards to praise Sanders and let his supporters speak. (Pew Research polling shows 90 percent of Sanders supporters say they will come around and vote for Clinton.)
There also was no damning of Clinton with faint praise, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Paul Ryan and several others did with Donald Trump at the GOP convention.
In his prime-time speech, Sanders gave a forceful, unequivocal endorsement of his rival, which seemed to calm his supporters. It was a much different scene than when the opportunistic Ted Cruz spoke to the GOP and not only refused to endorse Trump but gave his first campaign speech of 2020.
As expected, there was plenty of Trump-bashing Monday, but it seemed less nasty and personal than what GOP speakers directed at Clinton last week.
Speakers focused on Trump’s business bankruptcies, his habit of cheating small contractors and worries about his meanness and mental stability, which also concerns many Republicans. Delegates waved “Love Trumps Hate” signs.
The most effective speaker against Trump was Cheryl Lankford, a soldier’s widow from Texas who spent her military death benefit to attend Trump University and felt cheated.
The star of the evening was Michelle Obama, just as she was at the Republican convention’s opener, thanks to Melania Trump’s partially plagiarized speech. The first lady made a forceful appeal for Clinton and a passionate case for the idea that this election is about “who will have the power to shape our children for the next eight years of their lives.”
The Democrats’ first night was upbeat and hopeful, in sharp contrast to the GOP convention’s mood of dark apocalypse. But in focusing on domestic economics and social justice, the program ignored the other elephant in the room: almost daily acts of high-profile global terrorism.
Over the next few nights, Democrats must convince voters that Clinton can do a better job than Trump of keeping America safe. She must change the public narrative on her tenure as secretary of state from Benghazi to killing Osama Bin Laden and other accomplishments. Love may trump hate, but can it trump fear?