Dr. Michael Bitzer: Conventions highlight party differences

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 7, 2016

Modern-day nominating conventions have become nothing more than infomercials for both political parties, and this year’s Democratic and Republican national party conventions were indeed that. However, both presented stark contrasts in terms of the product they were selling to the American electorate for purchase this coming November.

As is tradition, the party out of power of the White House went first, and the one word that seems to sum up the Republican’s nomination of Donald J. Trump was anger.

While much was made about the unforced error of Melania Trump’s speech and the verbatim section from Michelle Obama’s speech eight years ago, the speech by Rudy Giuliani seemed to capture a level of rage that bordered on absolute contempt for the opposition.

Tuesday’s GOP convention proceedings continued the loathing of the Democrats and their party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton, but this time in the form of a public indictment by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the delegates’ verdict of “lock her up.”

Wednesday’s session saw a resurgence of anger, this time in the guise of party disunity that blew out into epic proportion, with Ted Cruz’s blistering retort to the Trump-dominated convention, with him walking off stage to a sea of boos. Old political wounds never heal as quickly as one would hope.

Finally, the moment that many had never predicted would come: Donald Trump’s acceptance of the Republican Party’s nomination for president. And while not as meandering in his typical stream of consciousness approach, the teleprompter-based address basically doubled down on many of the dogmatic and vague appeals that have served the candidate well in his pursuit of the Grand Old Party’s nomination.

Trump’s litany of resentment and shouting rage may have fired up his base within the party and perhaps those outside the GOP who are resentful, but making an appeal of anger and antagonism may not play as well toward November’s general election as it did in the primaries.

In his last public address, the modern stalwart of the GOP, Ronald Reagan, made this plea: “And whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts.”

Only November’s ballots, and the minds and decisions of voters, will decide whether this year’s history will be written in Reagan’s optimism or Trump’s tirades.

Following what appeared to be a slight bounce to Trump coming out of Cleveland, the Democrats took Philadelphia in a traditional manner.

Monday’s speech by Michelle Obama began the Democrats’ attempt to lay out a more positive view of the nation. The first lady’s speech seemed to overshadow the other major speakers that evening, namely Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

And while they were both the darlings of the party’s ideological left, Warren’s speech seemed to fall flat at times, while Sanders’ supporters proved to be a continual irritant.

Tuesday’s speech by former president Bill Clinton showed that while he has aged, he still has the charisma he was known for. While the beginning of the speech seemed like a year-by-year review of his courtship and marriage to Mrs. Clinton, it was the second half of the speech that seemed to lay the groundwork to building the case for his wife to assume the presidency.

The next night proved to be the biggest evening of heavy hitters at the podium, with the party elites rallying around their nominee. Both President Obama and Vice President Biden gave full-throated endorsements to their former Secretary of State.

A convention’s final evening is always the biggest. Highlighted by a powerful address by Khizr Khan to the GOP nominee, the Democrats laid claim to the idea of American exceptionalism, something that typically is a centerpiece of Republican conventions.

Secretary Clinton’s speech was one that captured the ideals of Sanders’ policy issues, but delivered in rather a dampened charismatic approach, in comparison to her husband, Obama and Biden.

In the end, while there may be a convention bounce for both nominees coming out of the past two weeks, the likelihood is that those who were watching were the intended customers: the bases of both parties.

Ultimately, both conventions achieved what the parties wanted: A clear and stark portrait of differences between the Democrats and the Republicans in just about every manner.

Dr. Michael Bitzer is provost and professor of politics at Catawba College. This is an abbreviated excerpt from the blog he writes for WFAE radio, The Party Line.