Saturday, August 27, 2016

Local TD reflects on US Democratic Convention

Martin Heydon with Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Fine Gael's leader in the Seanad Senator Jerry Buttimer.
A month ago, Deputy Martin Heydon attended the Democratic Party Convention in Philadelphia. The Fine Gael TD for Kildare South and the Chairman of the Parliamentary Party was representing the Party as a guest of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) at their International Leaders Forum which was part of the overall convention. Here are his thoughts in reflection on the event.

I was one of 400 international guests invited to the forum by the NDI, who describe themselves as a nonprofit, non partisan organisation working to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide through citizen participation, openness and accountability in Government.

The forum had organised seminars each day, we would then make our way to the Wells Fargo Sporting Arena each evening from 5pm for the convention speeches. Tuesday saw the roll call vote where each state had a delegate address the 20,000 strong crowd and announce where their delegate votes were going. It wasn't a surprise when Hillary Clinton reached the magic number of 2,382 to secure the nomination and finally beat Bernie Sanders.

A lot of the focus on the first couple of days was to try to heal the significant division in the party between Sanders supporters and Clinton, the former who made a number of attempts to interrupt proceedings during the week in protest at a process that they felt favoured Clinton. On the first day, the Chair of the Democratic Party, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was forced to resign due to leaked emails that show she had favoured Clinton.

Sanders, a self described democratic socialist, ran on a platform of reversing economic inequality. His surprisingly strong showing has forced Clinton to move more left with pledges of debt-free third level education and attacks on Wall Street. ‘Tax the wealthy’ was a common call with the inference that Trump would be in the pocket of big business and millionaires. While they succeeded in quelling a lot of the vocal Sanders opposition, Clinton will have a very delicate balance to strike in middle America where a pro-business and pro-jobs approach will be rewarded more than an idealistic socialist approach.

Monday night saw speeches from Sanders endorsing Clinton (unlike Trump's opposition Ted Cruz, the previous week which gained him the tag of being a sore loser). Senator Cory Booker gave, for me, one of the best speeches of the week. The first Africian-American to represent New Jersey, he's one to watch for the future. Michelle Obama also provided a well delivered speech, even at this early point the common theme was obvious, to soften the image of Hillary, and show her feminine maternal side.

The Keynote speech on Tuesday night was delivered by Bill Clinton. It was a much more personalised speech focusing on the social issues Hilary worked on as his own political career progressed.

Wednesday night was the hugely popular Vice President Joe Biden (many feel he may have beaten Hillary if he'd challenged her for convention) and President Obama, who's speech was a mix between looking at his own legacy, the continuation of Democratic Party ideals under Hillary and raising fear as to what the future under Trump would look like.

Thursday night saw Chelsea Clinton introduce her mother on stage, in a speech that you'd never see in Irish politics. Hillary's speech, which went on for well over an hour, pulled together all of the different strands of messaging that we'd heard throughout the week.

I was impressed at how the party organisers had managed to positively link Hillary to opposite sides of divisive issues throughout the week. While we heard from 'Mothers of the Movement', whose black sons had been shot by police, endorse Hillary, we also were addressed by a Dallas Sheriff whose colleagues had been gunned down as race tensions overflowed.

We also saw a large amount of normal, everyday citizens with illnesses, disabilities, or sad stories involving gun crime or the fallout from 9/11, address the 20,000 delegates each day, endorsing Hillary. The use of the general public to endorse Hillary on the biggest stage is not something we would be used to here in Irish politics but it worked well for them.

The Irish Embassy organised a number of events on the fringe of the convention, which I attended and where I met with different organisations that work closely with Irish immigrants on a day to day basis.

Overall it was a very interesting experience to attend the Democratic Convention and to meet up with many other public representatives from Europe and across the globe. The themes of the week, which are the issues of the election, point to some of the challenges in American society. In particular gun crime, inequality, unemployment, health care, and foreign policy.

The mix of asking Americans to trust Hillary, and the generation of fear over what Trump might do as President will probably be enough to keep the Democrats in the White House. But, just like the week of their convention, the question of what Trump will say or do next will loom large between now and polling day in November.