Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Democratic Convention Day 1:
Calming the waters, dropping the mic

A STORM BLEW through Philadelphia on Monday, a midsummer surprise that scattered the precious media tents and enclosures outside the Wells Fargo Center, where the Democrats gathered for the 2016 Democratic National Convention were navigating their own storm, at a confab already showing some of the intrigues we’ve come to expect from the Dems.

This mess really started Friday, when WikiLeaks released emails implicating the Democratic National Committee in a religion-based smear campaign against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a campaign intended to plant impertinent questions about his Jewish heritage before the Kentucky and West Virginia primaries.

For Bernie Sanders — in something of an ascendancy amid defeat, an emeritus presence in light of a brilliantly maverick campaign — the WikiLeaks flap underscored the weakness of DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and gave Sanders a perfectly (if accidentally perfectly) timed opportunity to take another shot at Schultz, his bĂȘte noire for months.

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“I don't think she is qualified to be the chair of the DNC not only for these awful emails, which revealed the prejudice of the DNC, but also because we need a party that reaches out to working people and young people, and I don't think her leadership style is doing that,“ Sanders told Jake Tapper the day before on CNN's “State of the Union.“

DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was effectively cashiered that day; the plans to let her gavel the convention into session were scuttled amid an internal situation that threatened to blow up into another email scandal.

But like the storm outside, the one inside the hall Monday didn’t last long — about four hours. What could have been a tidal wave of dissension blew over, at least in the short term, thanks to some of the best people you’ll meet in speakers’-bureau heaven, including Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren and — who knew? — Sarah Silverman.

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IT WASN’T SO tall an order for the Democrats organizing the convention: Just don’t screw up like the Republican convention did. With the bar that low, and the list of known speakers and luminaries set to speak and perform, the Democrats were poised to have a great convention from the jump ... if not for that damn email thing.

With that out the way, the Democratic Party was set to make different kinds of history, on purpose and by accident. The most important was sealing the breach between Clinton and Sanders, and by extension convincing Sanders supporters that Hillary Clinton was not Satan in a pantsuit. That process called for testimonials, and conventions are real damn good at that.

Clinton and Sanders were praised in pretty much equal measure — hopefully a way to mollify those Sanders supporters for whom the Wells Fargo Center was the hill they were prepared to die on. Donald Trump, the media chameleon, attention addict and Republican nominee, got his lumps too.

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley jumped in early, focusing on the plight of everyday Americans surviving the current economy, and saying Trump “is no more a champion for American workers than a lion is a champion for a gazelle.” Democrats “owe an enormous debt to Bernie Sanders,” Merkley said, before mentioning how Sanders and Clinton “have forged the most progressive platform in our party’s history.”

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And as we know, Michelle Obama is exceptionally good at calming the waters and warming the heart from behind the podium. As cool as the downside of the pillow, as passionate as a first lady with skin in the national game, the first lady has been President Obama’s secret weapon, and she’s poised to perform the same for Team Clinton.

“The issues a president faces are not black and white and cannot be boiled down to 140 characters,” she said Monday in a priceless jab at Trump.

Relating advice that she and daddy Barack have given their daughters, Sasha and Malia, on dealing with bullies and character assassins, Obama took another shot at The Donald, while offering a behavior mode that full-grown adults should adopt: “When someone is cruel or acts like a bully,” she said, “you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.” There’s some good advice for your kids. Or yourself.

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EVER THE MASTER oratorical diplomat, Obama took a few light jabs at the Sanders hornet’s nest. She alluded to the senator in a mention of Hillary Clinton post-2008 defeat. “And when she didn’t win the nomination eight years ago, she didn’t get angry or disillusioned,” Obama said, praising “the guts and the grace” of Hillary Clinton.

“There were plenty of moments when Hillary could have decided that this work was too hard, that the price of public service was too high, that she was tired of being picked apart for how she looks or how she talks or even how she laughs. But here’s the thing. What I admire most about Hillary is that she never buckles under pressure. She never takes the easy way out. And Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life.”

And then, with a quote that will be recited for generations to come, Michelle Obama turned it up a notch, cemented the links between the America then and the America now and Hillary’s role in that transition ... and in the bargain, thoroughly disabling the fraudulent voltage that powers the Trump campaign slogan.

“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” Obama said. “And I watch my daughters — two beautiful, intelligent, black young women —playing with their dogs on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States. So don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again, because this right now is the greatest country on earth.”

It was, CNN’s Gloria Borger said, “a takedown of Donald Trump in a nuanced way.” And brilliant. The conservative branch of the CAPS LOCK cognoscenti went nuts over the White-House-built-by-slaves statement, which wasn’t provocative or new at all if you studied American history. If the rapturous reaction at the hall was any indication, the rest of the country may have known but didn’t care. It wasn’t just the message they were responding to, it was also the messenger, they were reacting to this Obama, one of the two or three best orators of the modern political era.

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The always-reliable Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast explained how all this eleventy-leventh-hour drama some Sanders supporters cultivated — apparently hoping Sanders would somehow prevail despite the tidal arithmetic of the primaries — was utterly unnecessary.

“There are Sanders delegates who came to Philadelphia still thinking that Sanders had a chance at wresting the nomination away from Clinton, and yeah, that’s partly their fault for being ignorant about how politics actually work, but it’s partly the fault of Sanders and Jeff Weaver, who spent weeks saying they were taking their fight to the convention long after anyone who wasn’t over the rainbow knew it was impossible.”

It was that level of frustration with their frustration that led Sarah Silverman, actress, activist, comedian and Sanders supporter herself, to reveal her Enough Moment.

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HILLARY IS our Democratic nominee and I will proudly vote for her,” she told the crowd in Philadelphia. “I will vote for Hillary with gusto.”

In explanation as to why she switched allegiances, Silverman said: “I support Bernie Sanders and the movement behind him … Hillary heard the passion of the people behind Bernie, and brought those passions into the party’s platform and that is the process of democracy at its very best,” she explained.

Then Silverman set them straight, as only she can. “To the Bernie or bust people, you’re being ridiculous,” she said.

After Silverman spoke to the crowd, Paul Simon took to the stage to perform “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” He’s been better than he was Monday, but it was still a pretty good choice for a first day that needed, and got that bridge, when the first lady dropped the mic.

Image credits: Obama and Merkley: Convention pool. Simon: PBS. Michelle drops the mic: From a Marcia Dyson tweet.

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