I’ve spent a lot of time this year counseling Democrats, independents and establishment Republicans not to freak out. That advice still holds – but barely.
The release of illegally hacked Democratic National Committee emails, coming on the eve of the convention in Philadelphia, was a fiasco that the forces of truth, justice and the American way – those, in other words, determined to prevent a Donald Trump presidency – surely could have done without. It’s not the end of the world, but yes, it’s a big deal.
What were they thinking at the DNC?
That’s not a tough question. Hillary Clinton, a leading figure in the Democratic Party for decades, was struggling to tamp down a surprisingly strong challenge from Bernie Sanders, who wasn’t even a Democrat until he launched his campaign. The emails leave no doubt that some at party headquarters wanted to give Clinton a little help.
The thing is, she didn’t need it.
Clinton beat Sanders fair and square, racking up more votes, more states and more pledged delegates. But the purloined emails, published on the WikiLeaks website, can only increase the ire and resentment of unreconciled Sanders supporters who have long complained that the fix was in.
The emails show DNC officials speculating about attacking Sanders because of his religion; insulting one of Sanders’ top campaign aides; receiving advice from a Clinton lawyer on responding to claims that the nominating process was rigged; and speaking disparagingly about big-ticket donors.
The Clinton campaign responded swiftly, enlisting President Barack Obama to help force Debbie Wasserman Schultz – who was booed at an appearance Monday – to resign as DNC chairwoman. The Washington Post reported that Wasserman Schultz did not want to go and that ousting her involved “a lot of drama.”
Which is just what the party and the nation do not need.
The stakes were vividly illustrated last week by the Republican convention in Cleveland, which ended with an acceptance speech by Trump that was one of the most obscene pieces of political rhetoric we have heard in many years.
Trump painted an America of his own warped imagination, a nation where violent crime is on the rise, terrorism is rampant, the economy is on life support and hordes of “illegal immigrants … are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.”
The truth is that the rate of violent crime is low, barely half what it was in the 1990s. Terrorism is a global concern that has no quick or easy solutions. The economy is in the midst of what could end up being the longest expansion on record.
But large majorities of Americans tell pollsters they believe the nation is “on the wrong track.”
It is customary for the out-of-power party – in this case, the GOP – to try to capitalize on such dissatisfaction. But Trump is doing so in a way that is alien to our political tradition. He does not offer the Republican Party as a solution; nor does he present a set of realistic policies or even a coherent philosophy. He offers himself.
“I alone” can fix a broken system, Trump declared. “People who work hard but no longer have a voice – I am your voice.” It was a speech that could have been delivered from a balcony in a banana republic.
I couldn’t help but think back to the years I spent covering South America as a foreign correspondent for The Post. The politician who comes to mind is Juan Perón, the Argentine strongman whose ideology was similarly self-contradictory – and whose legacy was to turn his prosperous nation into an economic and political basket case.
Trump’s bigotry, rashness and egomania make it inconceivable that he be allowed to take the oath of office as president. Sixteen Republican opponents tried and failed to stop him. Only Clinton can succeed – which is why the DNC emails, coming after Clinton’s problems with her own emails, are a big deal.
There is no need for conniptions over new polls that show Trump tied with Clinton or even in the lead; it is normal for any candidate to get a temporary post-convention boost. Clinton needs one too and probably will get it.
But what Clinton needs most is for the traditional Democratic Party coalition to come together behind her candidacy. Philadelphia is supposed to launch that process, and the last thing Clinton needs is for Sanders supporters to come away still stewing about what might have been.
Before the email leak, I wrote last week that Democrats had a low bar to clear this week. It has now been raised.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.