[Media Rundown] The Democrats held a convention, but everyone’s still talking Trump

The Democrats channel Ronald Reagan, while Donald Trump continues to own the news cycle. That, plus Bill Clinton plays with balloons.

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The nominating conventions are in the books, and we are now in the final 100 days of the presidential election. We looked at the Republican National Convention last time. Now, it’s the Democrats’ turn.

I thought we saw political theatre of actual consequence from both conventions – very rare for the polished infomercials these events have become. Both parties displayed friction. The continued resistance by Bernie Sanders supporters got the DNC off to a rocky start, spurred in no small part by email leaked by (Russian?) hackers suggesting the Democratic Party favored Hillary Clinton throughout the primary. Set up for a freefall into chaos, the Democrats used their convention tried to redefine American politics.

Wait, what?

It was fueled by Barack Obama. His speech on Wednesday night – one of the final major addresses of his presidency – became much more than an attempt to promote Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. It was an attempt to marginalize the Party of Trump as radical and claim the moderate high ground. In doing so, Obama channeled Ronald Reagan, and tried to take ownership of values that have been the fabric of the modern Republican Party.

Conservatives – especially those disinclined to support Trump – recognized what was happening.

Former White House spokesperson for G.W. Bush:

Former Reagan speechwriter:

It continued on the final day of the convention, as the DNC recognized the families of fallen police and fallen soldiers.

Talking Points Memo has a collection of more, if you’re interested.

If the Democrats succeed in making that message more than a flash in the pan, they don’t just win this election; they win a generation of them.

But let’s not paint the states blue just yet. Hillary Clinton took the stage on Thursday night as a candidate distrusted by two-thirds (!) of the electorate, and for the first time, viewed even less favorably than Trump. She doesn’t possess the oratory skills of her warmup acts, and yet had to find a way to convince undecided voters she was authentic.

Comparing her speech to Trump’s, we can gather a few takeaways:

– She was significantly more positive in tone, not exactly unexpected from the incumbent party candidate.

– She was more factually accurate, though she rarely invoked statements of fact. [Here’s Politifact’s annotated transcript of Clinton’s speech. Here’s Trump’s from the RNC.]

– Both speeches were well received by the television audience, which typically is heavy on supporters to begin with (we like to watch our own party’s convention).

She had some great soundbites – the Twitter line was brilliant:

But she, like Obama, has a tone problem when dealing with Trump. They sound like they don’t take him seriously, providing fuel to his base and, I think, irritating potential crossover voters who are reminded of the liberal elitism that sees a “flyover country” of people who “cling to their guns and religion.”

Clinton largely pushed the Reagan rhetoric aside and laid out a liberal agenda. I thought both candidates mishandled the Supreme Court portion of their speeches – Trump because he hardly mentioned it, and Clinton because she went too deep, promising activist justices and wanting a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Supreme Court appointments are literally the ONLY reason a decent bloc of conservatives are supporting Trump, and Clinton reaffirmed all of their fears.

Bottom line – I’m not sure she did enough to court undecided voters, especially anti-Trump conservatives who find themselves choosing between the lesser of two evils (or, more accurately, deciding whether a statement vote for libertarian Gary Johnson is worth a Clinton presidency). So, that leaves a great deal of doubt as to whether the speeches before hers meant anything for this election, or the alignment of the parties following 2016.

Other observations

The DNC surprisingly outdrew the RNC in terms of TV audience. Donald Trump has been a ratings machine since the first GOP primary debate – and his speech did outdraw Hillary’s – but his overall convention numbers were pedestrian. The Democrats maximized star power throughout the week – Michelle Obama on Monday, Bill Clinton on Tuesday, and Barack Obama on Wednesday. As mentioned last week, the RNC suffered from scheduling snafus that bumped some of their bigger names from primetime, but aside from Trump, I’m not sure anyone on the GOP roster could’ve matched those names in terms of audience draw.

Some conjectured that the ratings game got under Trump’s skin, and was the primary reason he encouraged his supporters not to watch Hillary Clinton’s speech on Thursday. Who knows whether that’s true, but it’s safe to say Trump cares about his audience size more than any presidential candidate since the advent of television.

Was that why he made the Russia comments that ignited a media firestorm? One of my friends pointed out that Trump’s prominence in the news cycle during an opposing party’s convention seemed pretty rare, and could have been the motivation behind publicly inviting another country to hack your rival’s email account.

I tend to agree. I was caught off guard by the gravity with which media treated Trump’s comments. While damning at face value, this is Trump, who has stoked outrage upon outrage en route to monopolizing media space. And he did it again with offhand comments that will be interpreted by his supporters as either (a) a joke or (b) something they would approve of actually doing. It’s why Trump could quickly brush off the criticism by claiming he was being sarcastic.

More importantly, Trump dominated the news cycle in a near-impossible moment to do so, historically. He deflected attention from his opponent’s convention, conflated the DNC email hack with Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, and made his friendliness toward Russia more about silly political mudslinging, and less about his policies toward American involvement in NATO, which alarmed his own party.

All publicity is good publicity? Let’s not go that far. The story we’ll be watching this week is one that was entirely preventable for the Trump campaign. The unexpected star of the DNC was Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim American soldier killed in Iraq.  Khan was exemplary of the co-opted Republican imagery at the DNC – the father of a fallen soldier waving a pocket constitution as he condemned the candidate who he said needed to read it.

But unless you are a news junkie, you probably didn’t see it. The speech was given outside of the primetime television window. Even the cable channels spoke over portions of it. Fox News didn’t air it at all.

Trump dodged a bullet. Until he started talking about it – attacking the family repeatedly over the weekend, and vaulting the story into the spotlight. Here’s Jay Rosen quoting Vox:

It led to heated exchanges in the media, like this one between CNN’s Brian Stelter and Trump communication advisor Jason Miller (you’ll want the first 3:30 or so).

Now, Republicans, like Paul Ryan and John McCain (whom, you’ll remember, Trump gave the “loser” treatment for getting captured in Vietnam), are forced to once again disavow something their nominee has said, while still trying to support that nominee.

I stumbled across a thought exercise that does a good job capturing the uniqueness of the Trump candidacy. Feel free to insert any Democratic or Republican candidate in history and see if it flies:

This is why journalists are having such trouble figuring out the best way to cover a truly unconventional candidate.

Nobody respects the local news cutoff anymore. After the first two nights of the RNC, the next six convention nights – including every night of the DNC – went well past the 11 p.m. eastern/10 p.m. central mark. It might not matter to you, but as a former local newser, I can tell you that it drives us nuts, as producers work with changing time windows and everyone else scowls at the politicians continuing to talk on the monitors.

We probably should’ve already known Bill Clinton would talk forever. But his speech went so long that many newspapers had already gone to press by the time his wife appeared. The result? Newspaper covers announcing the official nomination of the first female presidential candidate by a major party featured a photo of… her husband.

Let’s not let the newspapers off the hook – this could’ve been easily foreseen and handled differently. It’s not like we didn’t already know the date of the nomination and the history behind it. But for whatever reason, it was overlooked in favor of a typical “this is a photo of the primetime speaker” layout. More evidence that if journalists are biased toward anything, it’s routine.

Nobody would’ve blamed the papers for going full-page Bill on the final night of the convention. Balloons change everything. And Bill Clinton loves him some balloons. Do what you do, Internet…


Cover photo credit: New York Magazine / Getty

Have suggestions for the Media Rundown? Email me or tweet @voiceofD.

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