Two Conventions, Two Starkly Different Views of Nation
PHILADELPHIA -- The nation is in a state of crisis, or its mood is hopeful. Things are as bad as they’ve ever been, or they are getting better. It’s midnight in America, or it’s morning. The country can be great again, or it already is great.
Two weeks of back-to-back political party conventions presented visions so starkly different it would seem like Cleveland and Philadelphia existed on alternate planes.
It is difficult for the party in power to argue for changing course -- particularly one asking for a third term -- while the insurgency campaigns for a new direction. But this is also an unconventional year, and voters assessing the two campaigns in the middle of a long and tumultuous summer are sending nuanced messages of their own.
More than 50 percent of Americans approve of the job Barack Obama is doing -- a rare high mark for a commander in chief in his eighth year. At the same time, 17 percent of Americans think the country is on the right track, compared to 82 percent who are dissatisfied, according to Gallup polling. The imbalance mirrors this time in 2008, when an inexperienced candidate won by calling for change in an uncertain and insecure time.
Sixty-four percent of Americans in November 2012 believed the country was moving in the wrong direction. But voters still re-elected President Obama, who painted his opponent as a wealthy businessman out of touch with the concerns of everyday Americans. Democrats are applying a similar approach to Trump, arguing that the reality TV star-turned GOP nominee can’t deliver on his promises to working Americans.
But this time, Democrats have nominated a candidate who a solid majority of voters don’t trust, and one who has spent her entire career in politics. And while messages of optimism and hope are often attractive in elections, Donald Trump’s “doom and gloom” convention earned him a bump in the polls. The Trump campaign is criticizing Hillary Clinton for being out of touch and presenting a “a vision of America that doesn't exist for most Americans.”
"Democrats have been speaking about a world that doesn’t exist," Trump said in a statement following the final night of the DNC. "A world where America has full employment, where there’s no such thing as radical Islamic terrorism, where the border is totally secured, and where thousands of innocent Americans have not suffered from rising crime in cities like Baltimore and Chicago."
Democrats have acknowledged the political challenge of running in this environment, and that the party in power rarely wins a third term. But Clinton embraced Obama on stage Wednesday night in a way that sent the message loud and clear that she views him as an asset against Trump, and not a liability.
“The fact that we’re optimistic doesn’t mean we don’t recognize Americans can legitimately have fears about the economy and national security. I think we’re ready for it,” Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell told RealClearPolitics. “Donald Trump has a message that is oversimplified and false, but yet it’s very effective for people who are frustrated -- about the loss of their job or that they are underemployed, frustrated about crime.”
Throughout the week in Philadelphia, Clinton and her validators disputed Trump’s description of the state of affairs and criticized his lack of prescriptions. “This is a more fundamental choice -- about who we are as a people, and whether we stay true to this great American experiment in self-government,” Obama said. Vice President Joe Biden spoke to basic American principles and used characterizations often heard in Republican conventions. “We do not scare easily,” he said.
But Democrats have insecurities, too, as expressed by the supporters of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who often talk about a rigged economic system.
“I believe in that America. But I’m worried,” Warren said in her prime-time speech Monday night. “Worried that my story is locked in the past. Worried that opportunity is slipping away for people who work hard and play by the rules.”
The Clinton campaign believes Warren’s frame -- that the economy isn’t working for everyone -- is effective in threading the needle between a positive outlook and recognizing that people are pinched. “I think America is great. The question is, is it working for everyone? And the answer to that is no, it’s not,” Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta told reporters.
"None of us can be satisfied with the status quo. Not by a long shot," Clinton said in her acceptance speech Thursday night. "Some of you are frustrated – even furious. And you know what? You're right. It's not yet working the way it should."
In 2008, Obama’s prescription for the nation’s insecurity was an optimistic one. The picture Trump paints is bleak, and voters are responding. Asked why, Podesta said that Trump has been an entertainer. “It works on reality TV, but having a temperament that’s quick to anger, discounts study, and is impetuous has probably never before been a qualification for putting your finger on the nuclear codes,” he said. Democrats have played the temperament card throughout the convention. But they may be misreading the nature of Trump’s appeal.
“Clearly, there have been very big moments in this election that have continued to elevate the fears many voters have about the threat of global terrorism and national security,” says Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist who advised Mitt Romney’s campaign. “If you promote too much happy talk, you run the risk of being out of step with some of the anxieties people have.”
Trump’s message last week seemed to unite Republicans. The RealClearPolitics polling average finds Trump and Clinton in a dead heat, with Trump just slightly ahead.
Many strategists maintain that a hopeful message is a leadership sign that helps win elections. But Trump doesn’t put too much stock in tradition. “Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation. The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country,” he said last week in Cleveland.
“The problems we face now -- poverty and violence at home, war and destruction abroad -- will last only as long as we continue relying on the same politicians who created them,” Trump said. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
Democrats see it differently. "We are not a fragile or frightful people," Obama said. "Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order. We don’t look to be ruled."
Polling over the next few weeks will reveal how voters are absorbing these messages, and November will determine which one accurately captured the mood of the country.
"This election is about our values -- what kind of a role model we want the president to be," Clinton Campaign Manager Robby Mook told reporters. "I think this will be a visceral reaction."