In the Wells Fargo Arena on the opening night of the Democratic Convention you could see and hear the hard work of Democrats trying to come together. The bad news was that first day of the Democratic convention opened under a cloud; the good news is that as the convention went on a series of Democratic superstars – from Michelle Obama to Elizabeth Warren to Bernie Sanders himself – preached unity to a convention hall of delegates who were not always happy to hear it. As the convention opened, the Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee was forced to resign after emails had been released showing bias towards Hillary Clinton on the part of DNC staffers; confirming the worst suspicions of the Sanders campaign and giving more fuel to the anti-establishment protests at the heart of the anti-Hillary movement. In a midday rally Bernie Sanders mentioned the importance of electing Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine and his audience booed. Later in the afternoon as the convention opened and it moved through the business of adopting the rules and the platform there were powerful “no” votes, lots of booing and chants of “Bernie, Bernie.”
Bernie’s supporters seemed to be everywhere inside and outside the hall. Outside the hall many insisted that they would never vote for Hillary. The makeshift signs criticizing Hillary were almost as hostile as the ones the Republicans used in Cleveland. Inside the hall the Bernie delegates were a bit more polite. Few anti-Hillary signs were in evidence but many signs urged defeat of the TPP—Trans-Pacific Partnership. As the hours ticked by towards the final speaker of the evening—Bernie Sanders himself—even the Clinton campaign got on board .Clinton whips were instructed to have everyone cheering for Bernie, don’t stay silent and stay in the hall even though it was getting late. Hillary Clinton whips passed out Bernie signs—that the Clinton campaign had printed—and everyone held them up on cue.
The speakers before Sanders speech also stressed unity. At every turn, Clinton and Sanders supporters appeared together. At one point two comedians, Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, a Clinton supporter and Sarah Silverman, a Sanders supporter, united in a bit of improv. And at the end of her clearly heartfelt speech, the highlight was Silverman turning to the audience and saying—“to the Bernie or bust people—you’re being ridiculous!”
They were followed by Cheryl Lankford, an appealing African-American widow of a soldier who died had in the war. She had spent a limited source of income on—you guessed it—Trump University. “I was embarrassed,” said Lankford. “He [Trump] preyed on vulnerable people like military widows…By cheating working people who had nothing to spare… What kind of man does that?” It was no accident that Lankford led the 10:00 hour when most viewers were tuning in, showing a real effort among Democrats to unite by crystallizing disagreement with the GOP nominee.
And then came Michelle Obama who gave a powerful and polished speech in which she recalled Hillary Clinton’s own behavior when she lost the nomination race to Barack Obama. “When she didn’t win the nomination eight years ago she didn’t get angry or disillusioned… She didn’t pack up and go home…What I admire most about Hillary is that she never buckles under pressure.” It was a no so subtle warning to the Sanders delegates that there are bigger things at stake in elections than political victory.
This message was repeated with force by Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a darling of the political left who, in her keynote speech repeated—just to make sure everyone got it—“I’m with Hillary. I’m with Hillary. I’m with Hillary.” As she tore Trump apart her refrain was constant “We’re with her.”
And so, by the time Sanders appeared on stage the message to his supporters inside and outside the hall was clear. As he began he reminded them—“I think it’s fair to say that no one is more disappointed than I am.” And then went on to say; “Hillary Clinton must become the next President of the United States.” He was proud of the many planks he had gotten in the Democratic Party platform and listed them. But most important was his final statement; “Hillary Clinton will make an outstanding president and I am proud to stand with her tonight.”
The day ended on a far better note than it began on—which is likely to be the story of the week. In contrast, the Republican split between Trump and his second place finisher, Senator Ted Cruz, was never healed—ending in an astonishing speech by Cruz halfway into the convention week where he refused to endorse Trump. Democrats are helped by the fact that, in contrast to the Republican convention, their leaders are not staying away from this convention. The Democratic stars will all be here this week, from former President Bill Clinton to President Obama. They will all be urging unity. Slowly, patiently, they are putting their party back together.
Elaine C. Kamarck is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates. She is a superdelegate to the Democratic convention.