5 Mysteries from the DNC

Who’s afraid of Obamacare, are unions dead and other questions arising from Charlotte

Theo Anderson

Stacey Lihn gave a powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention, explaining how the Affordable Care Act saved her daughter's life. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

One perennial mystery going into the party conventions is which relatively unknown politician will take advantage of the spotlight and rise to national prominence, the way Barack Obama did in 2004. This year there were at least two answers to that mystery: Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts, and Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio.

But every convention also creates mysteries. Here are five from the recent proceedings in Charlotte.

Why are Democrats still running from Obamacare?

One of the best speeches of the convention was given on Tuesday evening. You missed it unless you’re a serious political junkie, because it was scheduled for the 8 to 9 p.m. slot, before the speeches by the big names and the up-and-comers who dominated the final two hours. But it was the best argument for the Affordable Care Act I’ve ever encountered.

The speech was preceded by a video featuring a mother, Stacey Lihn, as well as her husband and their daughter, who was born with a heart defect that requires three surgeries to correct. Lihn explained that the ACA eliminated the lifetime cap on payouts that insurance companies have traditionally imposed. That reform saved her daughter’s life, because they were approaching the cost cap after the first two surgeries, and they couldn’t afford the third.

After the video the whole family — mom and dad and two daughters — walked onto the stage. Poised and eloquent, Lihn recounted that some of the best days of her life revolved around the ACA — the day it passed, the day the Supreme Court upheld it. Its repeal, she said, is something that she worries about every day. The moment was deeply human, and it was a more powerful argument for the ACA than any editorial or political speech could ever be.

So why wasn’t it given a prominent spot? More broadly, why has health-care reform been relatively absent from this convention? Obama invested a year of his presidency passing it. Barring a sweep by the Republicans in the elections, its provisions will take effect over the next two years.

Obviously, the administration still thinks it’s a big liability and is content to let this vicious cycle run its course: Obamacare isn’t popular so they don’t defend it, and they don’t defend it because it isn’t popular. They’re confident that people’s resistance will fade once it’s fully implemented, and that’s probably true. But their passivity and the way they’ve bungled the public relations so far are baffling. 

Is there any hope for unions?

Regarding unions and the Democratic Party, one has to wonder: if not now, when?

A theme running through the convention proceedings was Stronger Together,” and there were many fine, stirring speeches about how we’re all better off when we work with, rather than against, one another. As Bill Clinton said in his speech, We Democrats think the country works better with a strong middle class … and broadly shared prosperity. We believe we’re in this together’ is a far better philosophy than you’re on your own.’”

But the institution that concretely embodies that abstract ideal — unions — didn’t fare so well at the convention. Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, got a speaking spot in the early-evening wasteland on Wednesday. We heard from a few union members who work in the auto industry, and the president of the UAW, Bob King, was given a spot in the 9 p.m. slot on Wednesday. But the King speech, it has to be said, was rambling and lifeless, and it got lost in the middle of a long stretch of similar speeches. The Democrats’ best and brightest politicians, meanwhile, mentioned unions only in passing.

It’s the same vicious cycle as with the ACA: Democrats won’t vocally support unions because they aren’t popular with the general public, and they’re not popular because Democrats won’t make the case for them. If that’s true now, during an election in which the Democrats claim that their highest priority is to rebuild the middle class, is there any hope that it will ever change?

How is Elizabeth Warren losing in Massachusetts?

What part of Elizabeth Warren’s Senate campaign isn’t working in perhaps the most progressive state in the nation?

On Wednesday, Warren saved the DNC from near-disaster. A long string of dud speeches had nearly killed the energy from the first day’s impressive performances. Then Warren came onstage and started in about her working-class daddy” and the family’s poverty and how she was waiting tables at 13 and married at 19,” and about how people feel like the system is rigged against them, and the hard truth is that they’re right, and about how she meets people who bust their tails every day” to make their American dream come true. And she talked about how she’s a Methodist Sunday school teacher, and that one of her favorite Bible verses is Jesus’s commandment to treat the least of these” with dignity and respect, just like they would treat Jesus himself. And the crowd — highly partisan, obviously, but probably not that far to the left of Massachusetts as a whole — finally came to life, and loved it. 

The most recent poll in Warren’s race against Scott Brown shows her trailing by five points. What gives? Does a different Warren show up on the campaign trail?

How did Bill Clinton become the conscience of the nation?

Some kind of karmic comeuppance must be going on. Fourteen years ago, Republicans impeached Bill Clinton for lying about having sex with Monica Lewinsky. In his speech at the DNC, Clinton systematically exposed the lies of the Republican presidential ticket — about welfare reform, about Medicare cuts, about the debt, and so on. Yes, the fact-checkers have been busy doing that for some time now. But their efforts don’t have the same effect as a (now highly popular) former president calling you out in primetime.

The fibs will keep piling up, no doubt. But Clinton’s speech will make it more difficult for voters, and the media, to just ignore them.

Is this thing even close?

If you believe the average of polls at Real Clear Politics, the race is neck and neck. If you believe some of the gloating among right-wing pundits, Democrats are in trouble.

One of Democrats’ grievances with the modern GOP, though, is that it ignores empirical evidence in favor of wishful thinking. The best evidence we have about which way the wind is blowing is Nate Silver’s analysis at his blog, fivethir​tyeight​.com, which goes far beyond just averaging the recent polls. His model takes into account the variation within specific polls over time, the composition of polling samples, the statistical noise” created by conventions, and much more. And right now, the last day of the DNC, 538 gives Obama a 76 percent chance of winning in November.

Polls change. Political fortunes change — just ask Bill Clinton. And the GOP has a ton of money to spend on the presidential and Congressional elections before November. But it seems possible, maybe even likely, that this race isn’t actually very close at all coming out of the conventions.

Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.
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