A landmark moment in a landmark year, the Democrats face a tall rhetorical task this week. They seek to piece together a party that has cleaved – one faction toward movement-driven populism and the other rooted in centrist incrementalism – to answer the call of one of the most pivotal elections in a generation. The Democrats sought to emphatically trounce a Republican nominee who reflects the worst of a new, inward-facing nationalistic sensibility. Despite an extraordinarily and unusually audible crowd of hecklers, a cast of characters from the zeitgeist of American electoral politics and a few of the party’s most effective voices sought to right the party ship. Pending this evening’s roll call, unity was soundly achieved.
Public relations and marketing pros often seek to architect the perfect brand moment. They should take note; despite a weekend of unexpected stories, another overshadowed vice presidential announcement, and the resignation of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the first night of the DNC was pitch-perfect political theatre and brand building, the reset the party needed.
As the Republicans’ convention bump began to play out across national polls, the Democrats needed to begin again with America, and present a clear case for why Hillary Clinton is indeed one of the most qualified, if not the most qualified, candidate for president in modern history. Where first night of the RNC put doom and anger on display, the first night of the DNC was a celebration. Individuals from the communities maligned by Trump gave their piece, speaking for those those attacked by his business interests and bludgeoned by his rhetoric and rudeness. Each keynote speech had its requisite, meticulous signs and tall, colorful, stanchions, the optics all carefully considered down to the logos and copy on each banner.
Sen. Cory Booker’s speech put the future of the party on display, a style that reflected a unique cocktail, part-Hamilton mixtape, part-Obama-era lucidity, part New Jersey street-smart, and part-Beltway savvy. This was the future of the Democratic Party, a vice presidential contender given an appropriate moment to shine. It is no surprise as Bill Clinton sat in the candidate’s box, listening with bated breath, his mouth went slack with surprise. Booker represented a voice moving enough to perhaps placate Bernie acolytes and ensure concerned campaign journalists the Democrats maintain a deep bench of emotional talent for election cycles to come.
Overshadowed by Sen. Franken, appearances by Paul Simon and the intra-party fireworks, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s speech did its work as well. Through a coded message to the party elites and establishment, Warren firmly established herself as Hillary’s wonky “anger translator,” and though her speech might not have had the same weight as her celebrated appearance with Clinton on the campaign trail last month, her night one appearance puts her at the center of Hillary’s strategy – she will undoubtedly remain the most effective voice in drawing and parrying Trump’s attacks through November and beyond.
Michelle Obama’s outing was sublime – the Democrats rose with her. Casting an election not in terms of order and chaos but in the narrative of a mother and her children, the First Lady struck a vein of deep and historic truth. Her refrain of the possibility of the American dream, that she and her family play on the lawn of the seat of the executive, the nation’s most famous home built by slaves, was beyond touching. Pure truth and strength, Michelle has always been the most unassailable of the president’s surrogates, and an envoy to the heart of American families from Washington to the electric centers of inner cities. This from-the-heart speech will indeed be referenced for years to come as a perfect example of the oratory that possibility can inspire.
Given the populist fervor and accusations of bias driven by the weekend’s Russian-led hack of the DNC, Bernie had the opportunity to make headlines once again and sustain his movement – yet Bernie and his supporters appeared to bungle the opportunity. Sanders overemphasized on familiar talking points and neglected to introduce new ideas or a plan to drive his movement forward. He likely took so much time allowing hecklers to share their piece that he missed the pivotal primetime window for the meat of his speech. His writers cast each Hillary line with a Sanders-friendly policy position to combat the boos. His most outspoken celebrity supporters even saw the window closing – Sarah Silverman’s unplanned tut-tut to the Bernie or Bust community reinforced how far Bernie’s leverage fell, and the speech meant to underscore the legitimate complaints and overcome divisions likely did neither. The Bernie wing merely appeared “ridiculous” and petty.
The Donald made history as the first presidential nominee to olive-tweet his opponent’s convention, and came out of the gate in expected fashion, brandishing his standard affronts against his favorite target, and sending nary a word against Michelle Obama’s speech. It is clear such shows of authenticity and power clearly go far beyond Trump’s grasp.
Tonight, Bill Clinton takes to the lectern to give what should be another rousing address, a masterclass in what calm charm can achieve in a nation and world frothing with change. Under siege from the Trump campaign and the subject of challenges from the Black Lives Matter movement, the ex-president must continue the momentum, distil our time and make the case for the role his wife will play in creating and crafting an even greater America. Given the Democrats’ arch command of moment, history, show, and message, I don’t doubt he’ll surprise us again.
Matt Spector is the founder and principal of Bow Bridge, a public affairs and creative intelligence partner for leaders, brands and businesses. He can be reached at matt [at] bowbridge [dot] co.