PHILADELPHIA—Democrats have a national security problem. In the first two days of their convention, hardly a single speaker addressed the threat of ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism. The delegates were even more dovish than the party’s rank-and-file voters, with many wearing antiwar pins and buttons. Some booed former CIA director Leon Panetta, chanting, “No more war!” as he made the case for Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy credentials.
But the Democrats had a weapon to counter their disconnect with the public’s anxiety over terrorism: Donald J. Trump. His comments earlier Wednesday rooting on Russia to hack Clinton’s email only fueled the Democratic argument (one that anti-Trump Republicans embrace, too) that he’s too dangerous to be entrusted with America’s national security. “It’s never a good bet to bet against America!” Vice President Joe Biden exclaimed, as delegates found their burst of patriotism. “USA! USA!”
With the stakes high, Barack Obama gave one of the best speeches of his presidency, making the case for American democracy over a bleaker vision of authoritarianism that Trump is presenting. Obama didn’t dwell on the very real and growing threat the country faces from terrorism, but he made a persuasive case that a nominee who “cozies up to Putin and praises Saddam Hussein” is an unacceptable alternative. He rocked the once-divided hall with his hope for a unified America—the same theme that propelled him, as a state senator from Illinois, to national stardom in 2004. He did it with the kind of masterful oratory not heard since Ronald Reagan.
One of the bigger paradoxes of this election is that Obama, even as he presides over a country that most voters believe is headed on the wrong track, enjoys healthy and improving job-approval ratings. Clinton—prosaic in her speaking style, pragmatic in her politics—has meanwhile been suffering in the polls. Obama admitted his own failure to stem the terrorist tide, and he promised that Clinton would “finish the job” of defeating ISIS. High stakes, indeed.
Hillary Clinton is more hawkish than Obama and her party’s base, but speaker after speaker spoke of her qualifications to be commander in chief. “I trust Hillary Clinton with our son’s life,” said her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine, whose son deployed to Europe this week with the Marines. Obama upped the ante: “She has a judgment and experience to meet the threat from terrorism. Hillary won’t relent until ISIL is destroyed.” And Panetta provided a final verdict: “The only candidate for president who has the experience, temperament, and judgment to be commander in chief is Hillary Clinton.”
The roster of Wednesday night’s speakers treated Trump as dangerous, with Obama even calling him a “homegrown demagogue” and putting him in the rogue’s gallery with “fascists, communists, and jihadists.” Obama noted at several junctures that Trump’s brand of megalomania was a departure from Republican and conservative traditions—even though tying Trump to the GOP would be beneficial for Senate and House Democrats.
If there was one shortcoming from the night’s stirring proceedings, it was that no one offered any fresh Democratic prescriptions to fight a terrorism scourge that is worsening. In a month in which ISIS claimed responsibility for the killing of a priest and dozens of joyful revelers were rammed to their deaths in Nice—among other atrocities—the theme of this convention was about feeling the love even as Americans fretted about national security. If the Republican convention was disturbingly bleak, this one seemed oddly detached from the public mood.
It’s more than a little tone-deaf to wallow in self-congratulations over an Iran nuclear deal when the regime is still proving hell-bent as ever on causing chaos in the Middle East. It’s odd to spike the football on climate-change accords when hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been murdered in a war that Obama wanted nothing to do with. There’s a disconnect when the convention memorializes the victims of the Orlando nightclub massacre but argues it’s only about guns—not even mentioning the terrorist’s self-radicalization thanks to ISIS.
The task of proving there’s a pathway to make the country safer will fall to Clinton on Thursday night. It will be a challenging and crucial moment. She will need to convince security-minded voters that she indeed is capable of “finishing the job” against ISIS. And she’ll need to sound tougher than the president, while capturing some of his rhetorical magic.