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Here's how Democrats are trying to reclaim patriotism from Republicans — and how Trump helps

Here's how Democrats are trying to reclaim patriotism from Republicans — and how Trump helps
Delegates react to Hillary Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. (Los Angeles Times)

A sea of waving flags, standing ovations for generals and admirals and praise for police officers and President Reagan made last week's nominating convention here unlike any Democratic conclave in recent memory.

In tone and content, whole stretches resembled a typical Republican convention — for good reason. The convention represented an effort by Hillary Clinton and fellow Democrats to reclaim ground lost as far back as the 1960s by taking advantage of Donald Trump's idiosyncratic candidacy.

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Their pitch was less issue-oriented than cultural — an attempt by Democrats to portray themselves as a haven for voters shaken by terrorism at home and abroad.

The attempt to transcend traditional differences between Republicans and Democrats has been made easier by Trump, who has scorned longtime GOP imagery and policy stances. Democrats have accused him of harboring an authoritarianism that runs counter to American values.

"The country is trying to find a balance and equilibrium," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. Rather than dividing along the "hawk and dove" divisions of earlier decades, he said, Democrats are hoping to cast the election as "stability versus flailing around."

"The show that they put on said, 'This isn't your old Democratic Party; this is a Democratic Party you can be comfortable in in 2016,'" he said.

The message was aimed at a wide range of voters who have leaned toward or voted wholly with Republicans in recent elections: married women, white women in particular, worried about national security; and both blue-collar and college-educated men.

Some of them turned away from Democrats as far back as the protesting days of the Vietnam era; others moved right in the 1980s either due to Reagan's mix of sunny toughness or the Democratic party's lean to the left; still more shifted to the GOP, at least for a time, after Sept. 11, 2001.

The Philadelphia emphasis on patriotic, sometimes martial, imagery came at a cost: Some convention speakers drew vocal objections from antiwar delegates on the party's left.

Perhaps more important, Democrats spent relatively little time talking about the economy, which is likely to be a deciding issue in the fall. Clinton began emphasizing that issue this weekend on a bus tour of Pennsylvania and Ohio.

But the absence of a full-throated economic pitch from Clinton wasn't as harmful as it might have been, because Republicans, too, spent little time at their convention talking dollars and cents.

The GOP convention in Cleveland, one week before the Democratic gathering, focused largely on the nominee himself. To the extent there were policy messages, some were at odds with Trump's own positions. And nearly everything was overshadowed by harshly anti-Clinton rhetoric that focused more on the past, such as the extent of her responsibility for the attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, than on the feasibility of her plans for the economy.

The turf being played on by Democrats melds patriotism and appreciation for those in public service with regalia that wraps all of it together for television viewers.

The party is also seeking to redefine patriotism to celebrate the country's increasing diversity and its openness to previously excluded groups.

When Clinton arrived onstage Thursday to accept the nomination, she was greeted by a lush tableau: thousands of rippling flags, many so large they were carried by sturdy convention volunteers. At her first post-convention event Friday in Philadelphia, audience members were handed flags to wave.

Such packaging aims at themes Republicans have long highlighted to Democrats' detriment.

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"Whether voters cognitively realize it or not, the merchandising matters," said Rob Stutzman, a veteran Republican political strategist based in California who praised the Democratic convention's execution.

"People feel like they are buying something special when it's Apple packaging as opposed to the cheaper competitor at Radio Shack. It all matters."

The longtime Republican edge in this area has stemmed in part from a close relationship with the military. The GOP's emphasis on the "exceptionalism" of America — and its castigation of Democrats as questioning U.S. supremacy — served as the icing.

Historically, as Republicans positioned themselves alongside soldiers and cops, Democrats favored military cutbacks and were more prone to protest in the streets, creating an image as just a little less red, white and blue.

But the ascent of Trump has challenged those long-held stereotypes.

He has talked of resuming actions deemed as torture, curbing 1st Amendment rights and backing out of longstanding alliances with other nations even as he has seemed to cozy up to longtime adversaries, notably Russia. He has insulted many groups of voters and American leaders.

He questioned whether U.S. senator and former prisoner of war John McCain was a war hero, saying he preferred soldiers who hadn't been captured. He said in a debate that the U.S. military was "a disaster."

On Friday, he called a retired four-star Marine leader a "failed general."

That came the day after Gen. John Allen's appearance at the Democratic convention, during which he led a conspicuously multi-ethnic band of military figures onstage to deliver a forceful endorsement of Clinton.

As the crowd chanted "USA, USA" — in part to mask a few protesters — Allen vowed that under Clinton the U.S. would "defeat ISIS and protect the homeland."

The speech — along with those by Vice President Joe Biden, President Obama, Michelle Obama and Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim U.S. Army captain killed in action in Iraq — boasted of pride in the nation. (Trump, on Saturday, responded by questioning why the captain's distraught mother had not spoken.)

"A common emotion for Republicans who were watching was: Where was all of that at my convention?" said Stutzman.

That's not to say Republicans ignored patriotic themes entirely. Trump talked about imposing "law and order." The highest-profile military speaker at the Republican convention, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, also criticized Clinton and warned of dangers ahead more than he praised patriotism.

"My message to you is very clear: Wake up, America!" he declared.

There are crosscurrents aplenty in the race between Clinton and Trump; voters unsure of Trump may decide to cast their lot with him to avoid another Democratic term. Voters who liked the Democratic convention display may object to Clinton's positions on a host of other issues.

But the voter groups the Democrats are targeting are all in the Republican camp, meaning that even small gains would improve her chances and those of Democrats farther down the ballot.

For his part, Trump has made few inroads among Democratic voters beyond working-class whites. To win, he will likely need to substantially improve his standing among groups now firmly against him, such as Latinos and women.

Putting together a coalition as broad as the one Clinton seems to have in mind — from far-left Bernie Sanders supporters to centrist establishment Republicans — would be almost impossible were it not for the presence of Trump.

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"Blue-collar Reagan Democrats could look at this and say 'maybe Hillary Clinton isn't my cup of tea, but this isn't a party that is anathema to me,'" Hart said, predicting down-ballot benefits.

Stutzman, who opposes Trump, was more pessimistic about his party's future after watching the Democratic festivities conclude Thursday night.

"If Clinton is able to win by good margins by clearly attracting those voters to her side, it will be an opportunity for the Democratic Party to start to have a much broader coalition than they now have," he said.

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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