On Thursday night, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar addressed the Democratic National Convention. Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s third all-time leading rebounder, knows a few things about the strategy of boxing out. He definitely wasn’t the only one on the stage who did. The entire show on the final night of the DNC was an object lesson in boxing out. I previously wrote about how boxing out applies to politics and the power of position in political decision-making.
The Democrats looked at the political court the RNC left wide open from the week before. Starting on the third night of their convention, the Democrats boxed Trump out of a lot of traditional Republican territory. President Obama’s speech to close Wednesday’s session explicitly recognized that the Republicans left a lot of the court open. “What we heard in Cleveland last week wasn’t particularly Republican — and it sure wasn’t conservative.”
This was the big advantage of going second. They could see what ground was left open and use those openings to appeal to some Republican (and independent) voters. By the end of their convention, the Democrats had appropriated some of the most reliable “Republican themes” of the last fifty years.
Obama shared a vision of America with themes of optimism and American exceptionalism set out by Ronald Reagan and considered ever since as property of the Republican Party. According to The Daily Caller, Rush Limbaugh was dumbfounded, calling the speech “Reaganesque” and saying if Obama’s presidency had been like that speech, “there would be no Republican party.” TalkingPointsMemo.com noted this tweet from former Reagan speechwriter John Podhoretz: “Take about five paragraphs out of that Obama speech and it could have been a Reagan speech. Trust me. I know.”
That set the stage for Thursday night, during which the Democrats wooed the center-right with a message that, for the last fifty years, you would swear came from a Republican convention. In one of the more surreal moments, retired four-star general John Allen, booming like he was drilling his troops and backed by a stage full of veterans, had the crowd of Democrats (formerly known as the “hell no we won’t go” Democrats) chanting “USA! USA! USA!”. Khizr Khan, father of a Muslim-American U.S. Army Captain killed protecting his men in Afghanistan, provided a contrast to Donald Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims (and a withering denunciation of the Republican candidate) that was nearly lost in the flood of appreciation for his son’s service and sacrifice for country, themes that you would, again, normally expect to see in full force at the Republican National Convention.
Numerous well-known conservatives noted how the Democrats had made and executed a strategic choice. TalkingPointsMemo.com collected the Tweets from conservatives on Thursday night. Conservative writer Ron Fournier’s message to Donald Trump was “You made Democrats a party of sunny patriotism and values.” Greg Gutfeld of Fox News also recognized the strategic nature of the Democrats’ message: “if repubs had championed their principles … they wouldn’t have yielded this turf to dems.” Rich Galen, Dick Cheney’s press secretary, asked “How can it be that I am standing at my kitchen counter sobbing because of the messages being driven at the DNC? Where has the GOP gone?”
None of this boxing out would have been possible without the first two nights of DNC being devoted to shoring up Clinton’s left flank, the Sanders delegates. And those first two nights were strategically necessary since the boxing out of the conservative ground couldn’t happen without the effort first to bring Sanders supporters into the fold before the closing appeals. Bernie Sanders’ full-throated endorsement of Hillary Clinton made that possible. Imagine the rah-rah patriotism coming first? The Sanders wing of the party likely would have not just walked out but stayed out for good. Clinton needed to be able to bet that Sanders and the messaging of the first two nights of the convention would get enough of the left of her party to come around to support her that convention could safely pivot into the Republican territory.
The arc of the messaging over the four days was strategically deft: Shore up the ground to the left then capture the ground on the right.
Of course, this could only work with a centrist candidate. If Sanders had been the nominee, the center-right court left open by Trump at the RNC would have been too far a reach and too inauthentic to his message. Clinton, and her down-the-middle choice for VP of Tim Kaine, makes a near-perfect box-out ticket, sitting at the equilibrium point between the left of the Democratic Party and the ground given up on the right by the Republican candidate.
Donald Trump seems to grasp the advantage of going second, repeatedly demonstrating his skill in “the art of the response” to position his reactions to opponents and events to refocus attention on himself and his message. This time, Democrats took a page from Trump’s book and leveraged the advantage of the opportunity to counterpunch.
Trump zigged and Clinton zagged.