He offers Republicans a face-saving way to vote for Clinton.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

How Obama Learned to Speak Republican

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
Read More.
a | A

Republicans who look at the matter objectively must be watching the prime-time lineup at the Democratic National Convention with no small amount of envy. Whatever you think of the content of their speeches, the Obamas, Cory Booker, and Bill Clinton each have better delivery than anyone who spoke at the Republican convention last week -- in part because so many of the Republican Party’s top talents found pressing reasons to be elsewhere.

Last night Barack Obama reminded us how he managed to sweep practically out of nowhere and win the presidency in 2008. As I once heard someone say about a different speaker, the world lost a great talker when he wasn’t born twins.

His speech at the Democratic convention was noteworthy for the passages in which when he was actually speaking to Republicans --  with one moment that was extremely effective, and one moment that probably undid a lot of his good work.

The good moment came early in his speech, when Obama said:

Look, we Democrats have always had plenty of differences with the Republican Party, and there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s precisely this contest of ideas that pushes our country forward. 

But what we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican -- and it sure wasn’t conservative.  What we heard was a deeply pessimistic vision of a country where we turn against each other, and turn away from the rest of the world.  There were no serious solutions to pressing problems – just the fanning of resentment, and blame, and anger, and hate.

And that is not the America I know.

Why was this effective? Because it directly addressed Republicans whose motivation to vote for Donald Trump is party loyalty.

Politics is tribal. A lot of Republicans dislike Trump. But of course, they also dislike Democrats, and beyond the policy and the ideology, there is a simple rivalry between two groups of people who are often pretty mean to each other, and consequently don’t like each other very much. This is why after every electoral victory, the winning side celebrates -- and then goes trolling the internet for the comments of the losing side, to enjoy the sweet, sweet agony of their opponents. It’s not pretty, but it is human nature.

Obama could have taken this moment to castigate Republicans, to say that Trump is their fault because Republicanism is just thinly veiled hate and that Trump has ripped off the veil to expose what was underneath. I guarantee that his audience at the convention would have gone wild for that speech.

But moderate Republicans would have recoiled. You don’t call someone a hater and then ask for their vote. Instead Obama framed the conflict as two sides: Republicans and Democrats on one side, versus Trump on the other. This lowered the psychological hurdle to crossing party lines and helping out the other team.

This is exactly the line that Democrats and left-wing commentators should take for the rest of this election cycle. They will not say that Trump is the true face of Republicanism. They will not say that Republican obstructionism somehow created him. They will not try to take this opportunity to tear down the Republican Party. They will make this election entirely about Trump himself, and such policies as he may eventually get around to proposing. They will emphasize that he does not represent Republican values. They will emphasize the ways in which Hillary Clinton is closer to Republican values than Trump is.

Frankly, I doubt many on the left will be that self-disciplined; hating on the other team is simply too much fun.

Which brings me to the part of Obama’s speech that didn’t work, and even undid progress he made in reaching across the aisle. That was the part of the speech where he started musing about what Trump was making other countries think of us:

I have to say this.  People outside of the United States do not understand what’s going on in this election.  They really don’t. Because they know Hillary.  They’ve seen her work.  She’s worked closely with our intelligence teams, our diplomats, our military.  She has the judgment and the experience and the temperament to meet the threat from terrorism.  It’s not new to her. 

I cringed when I heard this. This sort of thing is a tic on the left, and it damages their cause. You hear lines like this all the time about America’s health care system, the death penalty, paid family leave, and a dozen other policy issues where progressives are looking enviously across the Atlantic. The most common formulation is probably “America is the only developed nation that,” but “Europeans don’t understand why …” is certainly in the top five. It clearly sounds like a winning argument to progressives, which is why they say it so often. Unfortunately, the only people who thrill to its implications are people who are already planning to vote for Clinton.

To other people, it sounds like running down your country as being less perfect than some other place.  I think that a lot of folks on the left don’t get this because as I observed a few weeks ago, the people in the global professional class have in many ways started to identify more with each other than with people unlike them in their own countries. They have a lot of friends living abroad. They care what those friends think. But more Americans lack a passport than have one. How much do you think they like being told how to vote by people they’ve never met, living in places they’ve never been?

If Democrats want to win this election, they need to assemble a tribe big enough to defeat Trump. And the first characteristic of that tribe will be that it is American. Mainstream American identity is big enough to span a country and win an election, if politicians like Obama can define “mainstream American” to include both Republicans and Democrats, and to exclude Donald Trump.

  1. Before you rush to your keyboard to type out that impassioned comment or e-mail telling me that there are very good foreign policy reasons to care what foreigners think … well, yes, indeed there are. But you do not win votes in any country by telling voters that they have to do something because foreigners approve of it. You don’t see Angela Merkel or Francois Hollande trying to win a domestic election by telling voters they need to suck up to America. Like I said, politics is tribal.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net