The Democratic Party has perhaps never been so radical or so conventional.
The Democrats are now to the left of President Barack Obama and are desperately trying to placate the teary-eyed, obstreperous shock troops of the Bernie Sanders Revolution, yet they also are portraying themselves as the party of sobriety and traditional political norms.
This year, Democrats want to fight the man and be the man, and running against Donald Trump, they might manage the feat.
At the Democratic convention, Sanders delegates — by all appearances the kind of people who typically work the giant puppets at street protests — nursed a sense of betrayal despite their undeniable success.
Hillary Clinton, who described herself as a New Democrat at the outset of her 2008 campaign, got pushed left during the course of this campaign on the Trans- Pacific Partnership, the Keystone pipeline, Social Security, the minimum wage, criminal justice and immigration.
The change on immigration is particularly stark. Back in 2008, after some waffling, Hillary opposed giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Now, illegal immigrants address the Democratic convention and hail Obama’s executive orders to allow them to stay in the country. The authority to issue those orders was so dubious that President Obama used to say it didn’t exist, but now Hillary promises to go even further.
Nonetheless, the leftward march of the Democrats isn’t the point of contention one would expect. On the high-profile issues, there is a stark difference between Trump and Clinton on immigration and guns, but not so much on trade, entitlements and the minimum wage, where the distinctions arguably involve only questions of sincerity or degree.
If the overlap in substance masks how the Democrats have changed, so does the way Democrats are selling themselves. They staged, despite some turmoil, a traditional convention with traditional speakers making traditional political pitches. They showcased rising stars, and a sitting and former president.
They wrapped their case for Hillary in anodyne commonplaces that pass for cutting attacks when running against Trump — you shouldn’t mock disabled people, openly doubt the religion of your opponents or casually question the utility of decadeslong treaty commitments.
The wildness of Trump makes it possible for Democrats to try to sell a “safe socialism,” or a politics that is consistently left wing but doesn’t scare the horses.
It may not have been his intention, but you could be forgiven for thinking that Bill Clinton in his convention speech sought to situate Hillary on the left, while making her sound as boring as someone who has spent the entirety of her adult life attending committee meetings and serving on task forces.
In a campaign against Trump the populist, there was little risk Hillary could go too far left with her VP pick, yet she still opted for the aggressively normal Tim Kaine, a career politician who has maintained the affect of a suburban dad. He comes off like the neighbor you trust to return your borrowed rake.
The self-styled party of normality is even playing the patriotism card. In 2008, Michelle Obama notoriously declared herself proud of her country for the first time. The other day she pronounced us the greatest country on earth (i.e., no need to make it great again). Democrats routinely hit Trump for calling the military “a disaster,” and President Obama, in a speech invoking Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill,” all but called Trump un-American.
The classic Chris Matthews distinction is that Democrats are the Mommy party and Republicans the Daddy party. This has never been more true, except Democrats believe they can convince voters that Daddy is off bragging to tabloid reporters about his romantic exploits under an assumed name — among other disturbingly erratic acts.
It may be that none of this works, and everything safe and professional feels stilted and inauthentic to disaffected voters this year. But the Hillary Democrats are putting their faith not so much in hope and change as in stolid reliability.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.