The traditional Democratic donkey logo was first associated with Andrew Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1828. His opponents derided him as a “jackass”, so he decided to co-opt an image of the strong-willed animal for his campaign posters. Although it also has more negative connotations, today the Democrats justify its use on the basis that donkeys are smart and brave.
Those, in essence, were the same adjectives speakers at last week’s Democratic National Convention applied to Hillary Clinton. This, however, is a hard sell, for she enthuses only among a minority of activists. Indeed, it was supporters of her defeated rival Senator Bernie Sanders who last week dominated Philadelphia and the park bordering the Wells Fargo Center.
“Hell no DNC,” ran the chant before Sanders formally conceded on Monday evening, “we won’t vote for Hillary!” Clinton supporters, some sheltering from the heat under branded umbrellas, quickly sped by, while Bernie supporters defiantly thrust their fists in the air, provoking cheers from the crowd.
“Every time she gets caught she lies”, one Sanders supporter told me. Another one conceded that while Sanders’s policies might not be “feasible in the near future” she would vote for Green presidential candidate Jill Stein. She acknowledged that this might aid Donald Trump by splitting the progressive vote, she acknowledged the possibility but cited her “principles” in defence. “Hillary Clinton,” she said, “has spoilt this election for herself.”
“I’d rather lose with the right person”, I heard a speaker tell one of several pro-Bernie rallies in downtown Philadelphia, “than win with the wrong one.” So “Bernie or bust” was a common mantra, an uncompromising attitude that clearly infuriated more mainstream Democrats. “They’re going to leave us and the world with Trump,” one told me through gritted teeth. “I agree with them on lots of substantive points, but the chips fell as they did, so it’s time to get it together and act like adults.”
Many Sanders supporters did not like such assertions of realpolitik, especially if it meant them having to support Hillary Clinton. A Philadelphian called Dusty Trullender even told me he probably wouldn’t vote. He was “disappointed” that Sanders had urged him and others to support his rival, and wished “there was another option”. “He seems to be the most for the people,” he explained, “everyone else has a corporate agenda.”
All of which, along with the confirmation of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee in Cleveland, are signs of the fracturing of the “big-tent” approach that has dominated US politics since the early 1980s. From “Reagan Democrats” to the centre-right “triangulation” of Bill Clinton, both main parties used to be broad churches, appealing to supporters on both the left and right. Now, however, Trumpists believe the Grand Old Party (GOP) isn’t tough enough on issues like immigration, while Sandersites are convinced mainstream Democrats have sold out to vested interests on Wall Street.
Thus there is deep unhappiness within both parties, not least because sizable wings of each find themselves compelled to choose between a rock and a hard place. Inside the arena, stewards handed out banners with the legend “Stronger Together”, but the fact that speaker after speaker had to work so hard to enthuse delegates about Clinton’s candidacy spoke volumes.
And while Donald Trump’s pejorative tweets about “Crooked Hillary” are intended to be provocative, they also punch a well-documented bruise, for a staggering two-thirds of American voters say they neither trust nor like the Democratic nominee. The Democrats have done their homework all the same. While in Cleveland Donald Trump pitched mainly to what American pollsters call the GOP “base” (a “core-vote strategy” in UK parlance), in Philadelphia speakers emphasised Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy experience and long-standing advocacy of women’s rights. Meanwhile her running mate, Tim Kaine, made the most of his father-in-law, a former Republican governor of Virginia, and urged moderate conservatives to ditch Trump for the warm embrace of the Democrats.
Number-crunchers agree this will most likely provide Clinton with an “electoral path” to victory, after which there are suggestions of an “a hundred days” blitz of political activity contrived to consolidate her position.
John Merrigan, a lobbyist and long-standing Democrat, told me he envisaged “the three Iron Ladies” – Clinton, Angela Merkel and Theresa May – tackling everything from Nato to the economy. Republicans believe it’ll be little more than a third term of Obama, an impression the outgoing Commander-in-Chief did little to discourage in his rousing speech on Wednesday night.
In an engaging yet highly edited account of his 40-year marriage to Hillary, Bill Clinton depicted her as a “change maker”, although it’s self-evidently difficult to make that argument of a candidate who bares the Clinton name. So far this has been a divisive election, and while the new Democratic donkey might be super-smart and politically brave, it’s difficult to see her ever inspiring the affection her predecessors did.