As she addressed the Democratic convention last night as a Bernie supporter, comedian Sarah Silverman was uncharacteristically ladylike, swearing not at all, and pushing no one’s buttons. Then she went off script. “To the Bernie or bust people,” said Silverman as she and co-speaker Al Franken played for time before Paul Simon went on stage, “you’re being ridiculous.”
It was far and away the convention’s most direct challenge to the hundreds of Bernie-backing delegates who refuse to throw in behind Clinton. But Bernie said something vaguely similar in his top-slotted address to the convention last night.
“This election is about which candidate understands the real problems facing this country and has offered real solutions – not just bombast, fear-mongering, name-calling and divisiveness,” said Sanders. “By these measures, any objective observer will conclude that–based on her ideas and her leadership–Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States. The choice is not even close.”
Though the Democratic primaries got nowhere near as personal as the Republican contest did, Sanders nonetheless toured the US essentially calling Clinton corrupt, saying the system was rigged against his candidacy. (Donald Trump now routinely quotes Sanders in his attacks on Clinton.) Sanders’ supporters have thronged Philadelphia to protest their candidate’s defeat in the primaries. The big drama going into the convention is whether Bernie will be able to call off his squadrons of supporters. And to some degree, that means deprogramming them—both their idealism and their Clinton-hatred.
Sanders, obviously, wasn’t going to be as head-on as Silverman in confronting his supporters’ principles. Two weeks ago, when he endorsed Clinton in Portsmouth, NH, he tried one of the other preferred methods of persuasion, vouching for Clinton. Throughout his rundown of key issues, Sanders repeated the phrase “Hillary Clinton understands” or “knows,” mentioning the former secretary of state 20 times by name.
At least based on the crowd in Philadelphia, his plea seemed to have little effect. Sanders supporters’ discontent was palpable throughout the evening. Before the prime-time speeches began Sanders supporters booed raucously at almost any mention of Clinton’s nomination. A couple supporters on the floor wore tape over their mouths with the word “Silenced” written in Sharpie. A slew of young men on the convention floor chanted “We trusted you” for a few minutes during Elizabeth Warren’s speech.
This wasn’t exactly chaos, but neither was it unity. This made Sanders’ speech last night was all the more important. Interestingly, Sanders’ convention speech was virtually identical to his endorsement address, save for a few telling details.
The Vermont senator seemed to have pulled back on the theme of praising Clinton, paring down the mentions of her by name to just 15 and cutting back on the “Hillary Clinton understands” refrain.
Instead, he took the other main rhetorical tack in Bernie-Clinton conversion: emphasizing how dire the alternative to Clinton is. His remarks about fear-mongering and divisiveness, and that by any “objective standards,” Clinton “must” become president, were added to the text of his July 12 endorsement speech, as was the line:
“We need leadership in this country which will improve the lives of working families, the children, the elderly, the sick and the poor. We need leadership which brings our people together and makes us stronger—not leadership which insults Latinos, Muslims, women, African-Americans and veterans—and divides us up.”
Of course, back in 2000, as many probably remember, a good many (mostly) young liberals dismissed Democratic candidate Al Gore as “the same as” George W. Bush because Gore was insufficiently progressive. Their support of third-party candidate Ralph Nader ended up costing the Democrats the presidency—something many would come to lament. This may explain the subtle change to the section praising president Obama’s handling of the financial crisis, to which Sanders added “President Obama came into office after eight years of Republican trickle-down economics.”
Bernie supporters didn’t seem especially won over by his arguments last night, though it’s early yet to tell. Part of the problem may be that there’s little agreement on why they refuse to accept Clinton.
Some supporters we spoke with were annoyed that the convention speakers kept trying to scare them with a Trump presidency. A Republican victory in November matters little, goes the argument, because Trump’s election will trigger “the revolution,” an end-of-days-like event where liberals suddenly unite effectively to overthrow Trump and the Republicans.
Others are plenty scared of Trump—they just don’t think Clinton is the solution. As a young man in the protest area adjacent the Wells Fargo Center yelled raggedly over a bullhorn, only Sanders—and not Clinton—could defeat Trump. Some supporters object on procedural grounds, saying Sanders actually won more delegates than Clinton (a theory, incidentally, that was commonly espoused by Republicans in Cleveland last week). Some simply say that Clinton is evil (protesters in Philadelphia have embraced the “Hillary for Prison” slogan that so dominated the Republican convention memorabilia stands).
Jimmy Mack, a Clinton-supporting delegate from Dallas, said he was worried that it might be too late for Sanders to prevent a reprise of the Democrats’ loss in 2000.
“Sanders has a chance tonight [to win supporters to Clinton’s side], but he should have done it months ago. He made a grassfire and now he’s trying to put it out,” said Mack before Sanders took the stage. “But it’s hard to put out a fire once you get it started.”
With Sanders speech out of the way, the task will fall to other speakers—most notably, Clinton herself—to present a morally compelling case for her presidency. Greg Kelley, a delegate from Chicago, said part of the problem is that naysayers assume they know her based on how she’s been painted in the media.
“She has to let Hillary be Hillary,” said Kelley. “Speaking with people who know her personally, she’s much nicer than she’s often portrayed. People need to hear her story.”
But that’s just the beginning, he said.
“Sanders supporters invested a lot of time and energy in supporting him, and convincing them to [invest time in Clinton] will take a lot of work. But there are three months left, said Kelley. “Always, there are going to be some holdouts, but at the end of the day, the alternative is so unacceptable that most people will come together.”