August 1, 2016
Presidential Elections 2016– Should Hillary Fear Optimism
If the last two weeks of our political life have seemed extra long, it is because we have gone through not two but four political conventions.
Cleveland had two conventions. One featured Republicans who have decided to voice support for Donald Trump’s candidacy without echoing any of his distinctive themes. That’s the convention where Chris Christie made the standard Republican case that the Obama-Clinton foreign policy has been too timid and too unsettling to our allies, where Paul Ryan spoke once again about his party’s commitment to limited government and where the typical speaker praised Mr. Trump as though he were a normal Republican nominee.
The second convention in Cleveland featured Mr. Trump himself. Unlike the speakers at that first convention, he promised to spend money on infrastructure, shred trade agreements, cut back on immigration and get our allies to pay more for defense.
The Democrats put on two shows in Philadelphia as well. Half of the convention was devoted to keeping Bernie Sanders’s voters inside the tent. Some of these voters are hard to please. (“They’re both center-right candidates,” I overheard one protester saying outside the convention hall, and others held signs denouncing “Clintrump.”) Senator Elizabeth Warren, former President Bill Clinton and Senator Sanders himself were among the politicians deployed to protect Hillary Clinton’s left flank. Their message was neatly summarized by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio: “She’s a progressive who gets things done.”
When the convention focused on party unification, it dwelt on abortion, immigration and gun control — in each case without a great deal of nuance to appeal to those who are moderate or conservative on these questions. But the later in the night and the later in the week it got, the more the convention shifted toward the bigger task of courting a broader audience.
This was the convention of generals, of invocations of Ronald Reagan, of chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” The old liberal fear of lapsing into jingoism appeared to have disappeared. Substitute country musicians for pop stars, and you would have thought you were at a Republican convention of old. The parties had in several respects traded places. Mr. Trump, more than Mrs. Clinton, portrayed American workers as victims of a rigged system. The Democrats, more than the Republicans, talked about faith, American history and national unity. Mrs. Clinton warned that besides Trump and Clinton, e pluribus unum is on the ballot.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. (above), President Obama and the nominee herself all welcomed conservatives and moderates with misgivings about Mr. Trump to find a new home in the Democratic Party — or at least, as Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, urged, to stay long enough to vote for Mrs. Clinton. Michelle Obama’s fine speech implicitly made the same argument.
That argument was, inevitably, characterological rather than ideological. “He loses his cool at the slightest provocation,” Mrs. Clinton said of Mr. Trump in what deserves to be the most quoted passage of her speech. “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” Democrats characterized previous Republican nominees as too right-wing; not this time.
Both parties had split personalities at their conventions because neither party has been enthusiastic about its candidate, to an unusual degree. That lack of enthusiasm manifested in different ways in each city. Republicans gamely ignored a party division they fervently hope is temporary. Democrats tried to portray Mrs. Clinton simultaneously as a true progressive and a nonpartisan unifier.
Because each nominee has intraparty opponents, each nominee sees a chance to court the people who lost the other side’s primary. While accepting the Republican nomination, Mr. Trump said that he would attract Sanders voters because of their shared opposition to decades of American trade policy. Democrats, whose politicians are more unified than the Republicans, pursued a more systematic strategy of peeling off anti-Trump Republicans.
Part of what makes Mr. Trump’s conquest of the Republican Party so impressive is that it came at the expense of several of its factions. But that also means that voters in several parts of the usual Republican coalition might be tempted to defect this year, or at least to sit this election out.
Economic conservatives are unhappy about Mr. Trump’s indifference to shrinking the size of the government and alarmed by his offhand reference to withdrawing from the World Trade Organization. Jennifer Pierotti Lim, a founder of Republican Women for Hillary who spoke on the last night in Philadelphia, works for the United States Chamber of Commerce.
Many Republican foreign-policy intellectuals have come out against Mr. Trump, too, appalled by his stance on NATO, his friendliness to Vladimir V. Putin, his willingness to alienate Muslim allies and his ignorance of the world. Mr. Trump has worked hardest at cultivating his relationships with religious conservatives, and he has been fairly successful. Yet many of them still don’t trust him to expend political capital for their causes, which do not engage him. He said nothing about abortion in his acceptance speech, breaking decades of precedent.
As much as the Democrats of Philadelphia invited Republicans to join them, though, they did little to make themselves attractive to them. The Democrats insist on hurtling to the left on issue after issue.
Pro-lifers are less welcome than ever in the party, which is now more firmly committed not to the maintenance of the status quo on abortion but to the elimination of restrictions on taxpayer funding for abortion that have been in place for decades.
At the Democratic convention four years ago in Charlotte, N.C., Bill Clinton spoke about the federal government’s long-term debt problem. That candor was absent in Philadelphia, where speakers, including Hillary Clinton, talked about expanding Social Security instead of fixing the shortfall it is already projected to have.
The retreat from free trade, meanwhile, is a bipartisan one. Republicans who are concerned about their party’s drift toward protectionism will not be drawn toward Mrs. Clinton and her running mate, Tim Kaine, who have repudiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership. President Obama hasn’t, but at the convention he didn’t speak up for it or for trade generally — even though there is some evidence much of the public remains favorable to trade.
Some middle-of-the-road voters who find Mr. Trump alarming nonetheless share some of his stated concerns about crime, the Islamic State and immigration. Democrats did little to reassure them that they shared those concerns. They ignored the preliminary evidence that the violent crime rate, while still well below its peak rates, has started to increase again. Mrs. Clinton affirmed our existing strategy against the Islamic State, but her remarks stood out at the convention, where the topic was rarely mentioned, especially by progressive favorites. The Democrats also made it clear that they viewed illegal immigration almost exclusively through the eyes of illegal immigrants themselves: If it has costs, or enforcement of the laws against it has benefits, they weren’t mentioned. You don’t have to think it wise to “deport them all” to find this treatment of the issue cavalier.
Mrs. Clinton said that she loved talking about her plans for public policy. But she did less of it than Democrats usually do, perhaps because the convention’s dual political imperatives — reassuring both the left end of the party and the general public — made it impossible to make a coherent case for an agenda. One might have expected the Democrats to use center-left policies to attract white working-class voters who are unhappy with their lot and considering Mr. Trump. They didn’t make this pitch very prominently, except for when Bill Clinton promised vaguely to take coal miners on a ride to the economy of the future.
Making college free for the middle class was a repeated applause line in Philadelphia: “Bernie Sanders and I will work together to make college tuition-free for the middle class and debt-free for all!” said Mrs. Clinton. But not all people are going to get a college degree. They got two sentences from her, and less from her allies.
Instead of reasons for hope, the Democrats offered these voters bromides about optimism: America’s best days are always ahead of it, etc., etc. These bromides came with a liberal spin, the genius of America being defined as its closer and closer approximation of egalitarian ideals. The idea that American patriotism consists of loyalty to a future country clearly speaks to many of our citizens. Will it be enough in an anxious era, when Americans are deeply dissatisfied with their politicians? And when Mr. Trump is offering a more pointed explanation of that dissatisfaction than the Democrats are?
The Democrats’ optimism about the country is tightly related to their optimism about their own political fortunes, which is based on demography. They represent growing demographic groups — including nonwhites and the unchurched — rather than shrinking groups like the white working class. But that optimism is unlikely to prove contagious among that group.
And the Democrats’ rhetorical optimism is vulnerable to events in a way Mr. Trump’s is not. Terrorist attacks and high-profile crimes may not make Americans find new virtues in Mr. Trump, but they will validate his campaign message and make the Democrats’ look naïve or worse. Mrs. Clinton said in her speech: “There is no other Donald Trump. This is it.” That’s right: We know his campaign will focus on her alleged incompetence and crookedness. What we don’t know is how well she will be able to adapt to Mr. Trump’s unusual pursuit of the presidency.
The fall campaign will feature two candidates whose parties have little faith in them and who in turn are to varying degrees uncomfortable with their parties’ platforms. A more detailed discussion of the policy choices facing the country will have to wait for another presidential campaign, with more serious candidates than Mr. Trump and stronger candidates than either him or Mrs. Clinton.
“What the world needs now is love, sweet love,” Broadway stars sang at the convention. The Hillary Clinton Democrats showcased an impressively broad coalition, stretching from those who have won military honors to those who have won Tony awards. But what the world doesn’t need now — what won’t prove sufficient to stave off Donald Trump — is a forced optimism.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg View and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 31, 2016, on page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Why Hillary Should Fear Optimism.