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How Obama learned to speak Republican

President Obama speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on Wednesday, July 27, 2016.
President Obama speaks during the third day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia on Wednesday, July 27, 2016. TNS

Republicans who look at the matter objectively must be watching the prime-time lineup at the Democratic National Convention with no small amount of envy.

Whatever you think of the content of their speeches, the Obamas, Cory Booker and Bill Clinton each have better delivery than anyone who spoke at the Republican convention last week – in part because so many of the Republican Party’s top talents found pressing reasons to be elsewhere.

On Wednesday, Barack Obama reminded us how he managed to sweep practically out of nowhere and win the presidency in 2008. As I once heard someone say about a different speaker, the world lost a great talker when he wasn’t born twins.

His speech at the Democratic convention was noteworthy for the passage when he was actually speaking to Republicans – with one moment that was extremely effective.

The moment came early in his speech, when Obama said:

“Look, we Democrats have always had plenty of differences with the Republican Party, and there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s precisely this contest of ideas that pushes our country forward.

“But what we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican – and it sure wasn’t conservative. What we heard was a deeply pessimistic vision of a country where we turn against each other, and turn away from the rest of the world. There were no serious solutions to pressing problems – just the fanning of resentment, and blame, and anger and hate.

“And that is not the America I know.”

Why was this effective? Because it directly addressed Republicans whose motivation to vote for Donald Trump is party loyalty.

Politics is tribal. A lot of Republicans dislike Trump. But of course, they also dislike Democrats, and beyond the policy and the ideology, there is a simple rivalry between two groups of people who are often pretty mean to each other, and consequently don’t like each other very much.

This is why after every electoral victory, the winning side celebrates – and then goes trolling the internet for the comments of the losing side, to enjoy the sweet, sweet agony of their opponents. It’s not pretty, but it is human nature.

Obama could have taken this moment to castigate Republicans, to say that Trump is their fault because Republicanism is just thinly veiled hate and that Trump has ripped off the veil to expose what was underneath. I guarantee that his audience at the convention would have gone wild for that speech.

But moderate Republicans would have recoiled. You don’t call someone a hater and then ask for their vote. Instead Obama framed the conflict as two sides: Republicans and Democrats on one side, vs. Trump on the other. This lowered the psychological hurdle to crossing party lines and helping out the other team.

This is exactly the line that Democrats and left-wing commentators should take for the rest of this election cycle. They will not say that Trump is the true face of Republicanism. They will not say that Republican obstructionism somehow created him. They will not try to take this opportunity to tear down the Republican Party.

They will make this election entirely about Trump himself, and such policies as he may eventually get around to proposing. They will emphasize that he does not represent Republican values. They will emphasize the ways in which Hillary Clinton is closer to Republican values than Trump is.

Frankly, I doubt many on the left will be that self-disciplined; hating the other team is simply too much fun.

If Democrats want to win this election, they need to assemble a tribe big enough to defeat Trump. And the first characteristic of that tribe will be that it is American. Mainstream American identity is big enough to span a country and win an election, if politicians like Obama can define “mainstream American” to include Republicans and Democrats alike, and to exclude Donald Trump.

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist writing on economics, business and public policy.

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