A week ago, I watched Donald Trump’s acceptance speech from Cleveland. I would have watched more of the Republican convention, but the speakers were uninspiring. Not so the Democrats. In baseball terms, they all delivered big hits as did Independent former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But to me, Bernie Sanders hit a critical home run.
Given the letdown and anger Bernie’s supporters exhibited in Philadelphia, his Monday-night speech may have just cleared the wall—but it did. He targeted neither Republicans nor Hillary supporters. Rather, he addressed his followers. Two questions required answers: Would Bernie support Clinton enthusiastically? If so, could he bring his supporters—many young and new to presidential politics—along?
Prior to the convention, Bernie was given great sway over the Democratic platform. So everyone knew he would support Hillary to some degree. But a whole-hearted endorsement? That remained a mystery even after he started to speak.
Still, as he began, the structure of Bernie’s speech became apparent. For openers, he wisely acknowledged his followers’ efforts and passions. He praised them for delivering 1,846 pledged delegates to the convention. Because he didn’t focus on Hillary, he might even have led some of his supporters to believe he was about to open up a floor fight. As bitter as his defeat felt to him—and them—he didn’t.
Instead, Bernie rededicated himself to the issues in which he and his supporters believe—from a $15 federal minimum wage to universal healthcare to breaking up the big banks. Whether you or I agree with his positions isn’t the point. In terms of the speech, what mattered was that the middle portion stressed not Bernie Sanders’ worthiness to be president but the issues that propelled his candidacy. The cult of personality, Bernie implied without mentioning Donald Trump, is irrelevant.
The windup brought his directive to his followers. “Our job now is to see that platform implemented by a Democratic Senate, a Democratic House and a Hillary Clinton presidency—and I am going to do everything I can to make that happen.” In effect he said, “I’m not with her; I’m with the issues—our issues—she will champion in the White House as I would.”
As the campaign moves forward, some Bernie supporters may sit out while others adopt third parties. My great-nephew Matthew Miller, 20, will vote in his first presidential election. He offers his perspective online. In brief, he’s a staunch Bernie supporter but just re-registered with the Green Party. Nonetheless, he’s unsure how he’ll cast his ballot. If he votes Green, it will be because he believes Hillary will easily carry California; his vote won’t alter the outcome.
Will Bernie’s followers reject him, bail out en masse and tilt the election to Trump? Or facing a Trump presidency, will they rally to Hillary as a representative of their issues? Or will they become irrelevant to some degree as undecided voters clench their teeth and vote for Hillary as the lesser of two evils?
We’ll find out in November. But this I do believe: Even if Bernie’s supporters stay home, Bernie’s speech in the face of an enormous challenge will be judged as exceptional—a home run in the annals of American political speechmaking carefully constructed one base at a time.
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