The Struggle To Achieve Party Unity at the DNC


On Monday night, I had the great honor to attend the Democratic National Convention. I saw a number of distinguished political figures, including Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), First Lady Michelle Obama, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The theme of the evening was “United Together” – the DNC wanted to heal the wounds in the party and bring Democrats together after the increasingly contentious primary between Sanders and Democratic presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton.

Almost immediately, it was clear that deep divisions still existed in the party. Right outside of the Wells Fargo Center, the site of the convention, a pro-Bernie Sanders rally was in motion. The protesters condemned the TPP and decried the role of money in politics. There were posters outlining Clinton’s “crimes” against humanity. These included the “murder” of Vincent Foster, and knowingly covering up information about the Benghazi attack. (At a separate rally on Sunday night, there were chants of “lock her up” and “Hillary for Prison” signs and t-shirts.) One sign displayed the words “you’re going to hell.” There were also accusations of voter fraud and suppression. A handful of Sanders supporters even wanted their candidate to snatch away the nomination. One woman yelled: “Bernie’s going to take it today. You heard it here first.”

As far as Sanders supporters were concerned, Monday’s protest was justified. In their view, the DNC, an organization that was supposed to be neutral, favored Hillary Clinton, making the results of the Democratic primary illegitimate. By contrast, Clinton supporters regarded the Bernie or Bust crowd as ideological purists and enablers of a Trump presidency. Clearly, the hosts of the convention were worried – tensions threatened to explode out of control at any moment.

The speakers were only somewhat successful in promoting party unity. On the one hand, Cory Booker’s and Michelle Obama’s speeches were well received. Booker argued that America was strongest when people worked together, and that the country needed a unifier-in-chief. “I respect and value the ideals of rugged individualism and self-reliance,” he said. “But rugged individualism didn’t defeat the British, it didn’t get us to the moon, build our nation’s highways, or map the human genome. We did that together.” Booker’s speech received a tumultuous applause — everyone, from Clinton backers to the most hardcore Sanders supporter, seemed to appreciate his positive, uplifting message (although, to be fair, Booker’s speech did not go quite as planned; he was interrupted by chants of “Black Lives Matter”).

Later in the night, Obama stressed the importance of black and female role models. “Every child needs a champion,” she insisted. In contrast to the gloomy rhetoric used on the campaign trail, Obama presented a largely positive vision of the United States. “Don’t let anyone tell you this country isn’t great,” she said. “This, right now, is the greatest country on earth.” The DNC made a smart move by scheduling Obama’s speech on Monday night. She enjoys a sky-high approval rating among Democrats; 92 percent approved of her performance as First Lady in 2014 (more recent data is not available). Good will toward the Obama family seemed to bring Democrats together, even if it was only for 10 minutes. Clinton supporters and Sanders backers waved “Michelle” signs, and her speech, like Booker’s, received significant applause.

On the other hand, the mixed response to Elizabeth Warren’s keynote address reveals lingering problems from the Democratic primary. In her speech, the senator contrasted Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. In her view, Trump was a morally bankrupt businessman who “[cheated] people and [skipped] out on debts.” Her view of Clinton was far more positive – “one of the smartest, toughest, most tenacious people on the planet.” Clearly, not all members of the audience were enthused with her anti-Trump speech. “We trusted you! We trusted you!” several Sanders supporters yelled. They booed and jeered when Warren advocated for the Clinton-Kaine ticket. To them, Warren’s speech was a betrayal of the progressive movement and a caving in to corporate interests.

 Bernie Sanders’ address was the most anticipated speech of the night – and when the most could go wrong. Sanders had to walk a political tightrope, appealing to his supporters while also unifying the party. If Sanders endorsed Clinton too forcefully, his most hard-core supporters would feel betrayed. If he did not cite the triumphs of his campaign, then his supporters would feel disillusioned with the political process. If he did not advocate for Hillary Clinton at all, then the odds of party unity would go down and the DNC would be angry. In essence, Sanders’ speech was bound to make certain constituencies angry. For the most party, the senator did a masterful job of walking this tightrope. He thanked his supporters for giving “8 million individual campaign contributions” and for helping him win 1,846 pledged delegates. At the same time, he acknowledged that Clinton’s platform was far more progressive than Trump’s. “Hillary Clinton understands that if someone in America works 40 hours a week, that person should not be living in poverty,” he said. “She understands that we must raise the minimum wage to a living wage. And she is determined to create millions of new jobs by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure – our roads, bridges, water systems and wastewater plants.”

 Nevertheless, Sanders’ appeal to party unity was not entirely successful. His supporters’ eyes brimmed with tears as he spoke — and not all of those tears were tears of joy. To some of them, his speech was an acknowledgement of defeat or even a betrayal of the progressive cause. There is almost no doubt that a couple of those supporters will support Green Party nominee Jill Stein in the general election.

At 11:30 pm, I left the Wells Fargo Center to chants of “Never Clinton, Never Trump.” I was immersed in a sea of people, closely monitored by police. I was surrounded on all sides by gates, making it close to impossible for Sanders supporters to interact with us. As this experience illustrates, party unity remains a major concern. Violence could break out at any moment in Philadelphia, and so the police remain vigilant. Not even Sanders’ speech assuaged their concerns.

It remains to be seen whether Clinton surrogates can rally the whole Democratic Party by November 2016. The outcomes of several Congressional races, and maybe even the presidential election, could hang in the balance.


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