In 2004, Democratic senator Zell Miller spoke to the Republican National Convention in New York City. Focusing on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Miller spoke about being a Marine and how partisanship should be put aside for patriotism, especially in a time of war. ‘What has happened to the party I’ve spent my life working in?’ Miller wondered.
His speech brought the house down. I was in attendance and no speech from that convention was more memorable than Miller’s.
Compare Miller’s speech to the one given by Republican former governor John Kasich to the Democratic National Convention on Monday night.
Miller spoke of patriotism and past instances of statesmen putting aside their partisan strife to work together for a better America. Kasich spoke about his opposition to President Donald Trump.
Beyond that, Miller felt left behind by his party. He wasn’t in the hall to tell Republicans how to capture Democratic votes. To him it was obvious what Republicans represented, what Democrats represented and which side he fell on. The parties had shifted and he had found himself on the other side.
That clarity is missing from both parties today. Both sides are defined by Donald Trump. The Republican party is tied to Donald Trump, just like any party has ever been tied to the president from their party. But the Democrats are using their time in the national spotlight to be defined by Trump as well. The first night of the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee was not about what Democrats stand for but what they stand against. Defeating Donald Trump is priority one and that’s why Kasich made sense in the speaker list.
‘Who do you want to be?’ is a difficult question for either party to answer right now. Members can answer in platitudes like ‘we stand with working families’ or ‘we represent freedom-loving Americans’. It’s not like the other party doesn’t like working-families or freedom-lovers. It’s more about the shorthand of what those phrases mean.
Kasich’s prominent speaking slot only adds to this confusion. That he and Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke on the same night was perhaps meant to display the Democrats’ wide tent. Instead it showcased that they are not sure who they are.
The progressive wing of the Democratic party noticed. Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who got a 90-second pre-recorded video slot at the convention, tweeted ‘It’s important to remember that Kasich is an anti-choice extremist. He 100 percent will (and has) signed away our reproductive rights the moment he has the opportunity to do so. He is not a friend to workers.’ Much of the online left agreed. It didn’t help that Kasich gave an interview to BuzzFeed ahead of his speech saying Ocasio-Cortez is not representative of Democrats. Is he?
Kasich also happens to play an interesting role in the election of Donald Trump. Kasich competed in the 2016 Republican presidential primary and refused to end his campaign until two months after he’d been mathematically disqualified from contention. Kasich remaining in the race stopped the competition from becoming a two-man race between Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. He played the role of spoiler for Cruz. Kasich wasn’t concerned with stopping Trump, he was focused on winning the race for himself. Trump may have won anyway but Kasich made his path that much easier. But now Kasich is willing to align with the other party to stop Trump.
Can Kasich convince Republicans to vote for Joe Biden? Unlikely. But what he can do is force both parties to look at themselves and wonder if they are the kind of party to welcome John Kasich into a prominent role. The Democrats need to decide what it says about them that they are the only ones saying yes.