How Ronald Reagan earned a place at the Democratic convention in Philly

PHILADELPHIA -- The successful political convention is designed to stir emotions: Toe-tapping pride, a few tears, and more than a little outrage – the latter directed at the opposition.

The Democratic National Convention that just finished here generated all that, and something even more important.


“The GOP offered a vision of doom, despair, and division. Tonight the President I think divides us offered optimism. I hate this year,” wrote WSB Radio host Erick Erickson on Twitter – immediately after Barack Obama endorsed both Hillary Clinton and the American Way on Wednesday night.

“Who would have thought that the Democratic party would be more patriotic than the Republican party? It was bizarro,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres said Friday, hours after Hillary Clinton had accepted her party’s nomination as Obama’s successor.

Neither reviewer is a fan of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Erickson was and is part of the never-Trump movement. Ayres worked for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in the primaries. But both Republicans have practiced eyes. They recognize a shift in 36-year-old ground when they see one.

For the first time since Ronald Reagan declared “morning in America,” Democrats left their nominating convention as the party of flag-waving optimism and national security.

Trump had set the table a week earlier, during the four-day Republican National Convention in Cleveland. In his acceptance speech, the New York businessman described a nation in crisis, whose economy has suffered from botched trade deals, whose military is ineffective, underfunded and poorly led, whose politics are rigged.

“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,” Trump said as he accepted his party’s nomination.

Let us be clear. Trump is running an anti-incumbent campaign. Leaning on discontent, real or exaggerated, is an essential and entirely legitimate part of the package.

When he unseated Jimmy Carter in 1980, in the midst of an energy crisis and economic downturn, Reagan did just that. But in his solutions, Reagan also summoned the better angels within his audience.

“I ask you not simply to trust me, but to trust your values—our values,” he said. “I ask you to trust that American spirit which knows no ethnic, religious, social, political, regional, or economic boundaries.”

Contrast that to Trump’s path to righting a “rigged” political order: “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”

Possibly, Trump didn’t know he was violating Reagan’s cardinal rule of virtuous optimism. The four men who might have linked him to that tradition – two presidents named Bush, and past presidential nominees Mitt Romney and John McCain – refused to step foot in Cleveland.

“That wasn’t a Republican convention. That was a Trump convention,” said Ayres, the GOP pollster.

What Trump discarded on the shores of Lake Erie, Democrats gathered up and put on display in Philadelphia. On the final day alone, there was a Medal of Honor winner, an angry general, the Muslim father of a slain soldier, and family members of police officers killed in the line of duty. (Trump abetted Philly convention programming by suggesting that Russia might ought to send hackers after Clinton’s missing emails.)

But the most important stage element was the hijacking of Ronald Reagan. On the first day of the Democratic convention, first lady Michelle Obama planted that standard on the arena stage as she described her two African-American daughters growing up in a White House built by slaves.

“Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this country isn’t great, that somehow we need to make it great again,” the first lady said. “Because this, right now, is the greatest country on earth.”

On the final day of the convention, Clinton, too, referenced Reagan, in backhanded fashion. “[Trump has] taken the Republican Party a long way, from ‘morning in America’ to ‘midnight in America,’” the new nominee said.

Yet it was Barack Obama, positioned between the two women, who most aggressively appropriated not just Reagan’s language, but his name.

Like Clinton, Obama called out to GOP voters who worry that Trump has strayed from orthodoxy. “What we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican and it sure wasn’t conservative,” the president said. “Ronald Reagan called America ‘a shining city on a hill.’ Donald Trump calls it “a divided crime scene” that only he can fix.”

(As much as they trashed Trump, highly disciplined Democratic speakers in Philadelphia rarely besmirched the word “Republican” – a definite sign of future intentions.)

Obama employed broad, patriotic brushstrokes that would have made the Gipper proud.

“We are not a fragile people, we’re not a frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order as long as we do things his way. We don’t look to be ruled,” the president said.

The source of these words was important. When Reagan spoke of America’s new “rendezvous with destiny,” nearly 90 percent of this nation’s voters were white. In the last presidential election, blacks and Hispanics comprised nearly 30 percent of the electorate.

The audience has changed, and a person of different heritage was needed to give aged sentiments a new dose of authenticity.

The arena in Philadelphia contained a difficult audience. Bernie Sanders supporters and advocates of the Black Lives Matter movement – often one and the same – were noisy throughout the four days.

But like Reagan, Obama relied on the force of personality to convince the crowd that optimism remains the best course, even in the face of ugly and complicated reality. The day after the president spoke, I ran into state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, a Sanders supporter.

He suggested a hagiographic future for the nation’s first black president. “The way Republican voters feel about Ronald Reagan — there’s the same kind of reverence and awe that Democrats have for Obama,” Fort said.

When Obama finished pitching Reagan’s brand of patriotism, there was nothing but applause in his portion of the arena, the senator said.