While Democrats have not been shy about criticizing Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, the volume and tone of their attacks on the New York billionaire changed markedly on Wednesday night as high-profile Democrats -- and one notable independent -- took the stage at the party’s nominating convention and one after another savaged Trump.
Gone was any real effort to persuade voters to abandon Trump on the basis of policy differences. After former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg (the aforementioned independent) urged voters to support Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in part on the grounds that she is at least “sane,” it was obvious that something new was at work.
There was little pretense of respecting the concerns of Trump supporters. The not-too-subtle subtext of the evening was, “This man is dangerous and/or pathological, and if you support him, your judgment is seriously flawed.”
Under Trump, vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine said, the GOP “has moved too far away from the party of Lincoln,” making a pitch to Republicans concerned about the direction of their party to leave the GOP fold.
It was, as conservative author and pundit Ramesh Ponnuru put it, an attempt to “isolate” Trump within a segment of the Republican Party that embarrasses some of its other members and, possibly, to peel off a sliver of GOP voters and independents who lean Republican, if only for one election.
“President Barack Obama and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg argued that Donald Trump does not represent authentically conservative or even Republican values, and that those who hold those values should favor Clinton instead,” Ponnuru wrote at Bloomberg View. (The outlet is named for Bloomberg, who founded it before going into politics and who is now majority owner of its parent company.)
Calling it “the smartest tack for the Clinton campaign to take,” Ponnuru noted that “isolating” Trump from Republicanism in general might help Clinton in the general election, but it would not have much of an effect pulling voters away from the GOP as a whole.
“Split-ticket voting has been declining for years, but the message that ‘you might not agree with Clinton, but Trump specifically is unacceptable’ is an invitation for voters to revive the tradition.”
Responding to Ponnuru, Bloomberg View editorial writer Francis Wilkinson wrote, “What you saw on Wednesday night was a party that considers itself the only adult in the room. No doubt Republicans find that arrogant and off-putting. But given that Trump is the alternative, I think it's a pretty sober assessment of reality. If defining Trump as an outlier leaves potential winnings on the table -- some down-ballot seats Democrats might have picked up from Republicans but won't -- I think they will gladly accept that.”
The question now, according to Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, is whether the Democrats can sustain an effective attack on Trump’s fitness for office until Election Day.
“This was our first, overwhelming dose of anti-Trump rhetoric,” he said. “It's been scattered so far, quite naturally. This is what conventions are for.
“If this had been scheduled in late August or early September, like the other recent conventions, the broadsides might have lasted until Election Day,” he continued. “But this is late July. The Democrats will need to renew the criticism and sustain it almost daily after Labor Day.”
Given the gusto with which Clinton’s surrogates including Vice President Joe Biden, vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine and even President Barack Obama himself went after Trump last night, that might actually not be hard to do.