Before WikiLeaks struck, Hillary Clinton already had work to do at this week’s Democratic National Convention to unify her party.
Now that task has become a lot more difficult. The weekend release by WikiLeaks of more than 19,000 hacked emails from Democratic National Committee staffers has provided embarrassing evidence of DNC favoritism toward Mrs. Clinton during the primaries – a bias long suspected by Bernie Sanders, the runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination.
The scandal led to the forced resignation Sunday of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who will step down after the convention.
Democrats had great fun chortling over last week’s less-than-smooth Republican convention – the “Never Trump” revolt, the plagiarism, the booing, the high-profile GOP no-shows.
Now, it appears that Donald Trump and the Republicans may have the last laugh, as thousands of pro-Sanders demonstrators descend upon Philadelphia to protest the Democratic establishment – including Clinton’s perceived deficits as a progressive.
Protests may also break out inside the Wells Fargo Center, where the convention is taking place.
“There’s talk about walking out of the vice presidential, presidential acceptance speech,” leading Sanders delegate Norman Solomon said Sunday. “There’s talk about total silence, remaining seated, turning backs.”
Cybersecurity experts have concluded that the DNC emails were hacked by two Russian intelligence agencies, raising speculation that President Vladimir Putin's government may be trying to tamper with the US presidential election, the New York Times reported.
Sanders takes the high road
In TV interviews Sunday, Mr. Sanders kept the focus on defeating Mr. Trump and electing Clinton.
“Donald Trump would be a disaster for this country,” Sanders said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We’ve got to elect Secretary Clinton, who won every single issue, fighting for the middle class on health care, on climate change, [and] is a far, far superior candidate to Trump.”
Sanders also calmly denounced the content of the leaked emails. In one, a party official suggests questioning whether Sanders believes in God, in an effort to hurt him in Southern primaries.
“I am not an atheist,” Sanders said Sunday on CNN, calling the apparent effort to undercut his campaign “an outrage.”
The emails also show denunciations of Sanders and his operation around the time the DNC temporarily shut off his access to the party’s voter list. Sanders said he had long been convinced that the DNC was biased toward Clinton.
As it happens, Sanders addresses the convention Monday night – must-see TV for anyone interested in politics.
Can Clinton convert Sanders voters?
Before the WikiLeaks email release, Clinton had made significant headway in getting Democrats to coalesce around her. In mid-July, a Pew Research Center poll found that 85 percent of people who voted for Sanders in the primaries planned to vote for Clinton in November, with 9 percent voting for Trump.
How WikiLeaks, the selection of Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia as Clinton’s running mate, and the convention itself affect those numbers will be closely watched after the convention ends.
The early assessments of Senator Kaine by progressive activists showed some displeasure, but also some optimism after he came out against the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade deal – putting him in line with Clinton’s new, negative view of the deal.
“In the hours since joining the presidential ticket, Tim Kaine has called for debt-free college and announced his opposition to the TPP,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in a statement Saturday.
“Kaine’s actions are most significant when viewed as a reflection of how Hillary Clinton will govern,” Ms. Taylor added. “The mood of the country is a populist one. We’re glad to see the Clinton-Kaine ticket taking steps to campaign on big, bold, populist ideas that voters want to hear from Democrats.”
Clinton’s selection of Kaine seemed to show confidence that she didn’t need to move far to the left to secure her party’s liberal base in November. Ditto the fact that he’s a white male – challenging Trump with a demographic that favors him.
Still, some progressives worry that even if most Sanders voters say they’ll vote for Clinton, they won’t do what’s really needed to get her elected – not just vote, but volunteer and bring friends to the polls.
In recent days, Democratic convention committees made concessions to the Sanders wing of the party. The Rules Committee approved a commission that will reduce the number of “super-delegates” – party leaders and elected officials who are not bound by the results of primaries and caucuses – in future years.
They also made changes to the party platform, with a call for a $15 minimum wage, expanded access to health care and higher education, measures to "rein in Wall Street," and abolishing of the death penalty.
The convention represents Clinton’s biggest opportunity between now and Election Day to communicate her “values and vision” directly to the American people, says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
Clinton’s challenge is that she’s not the most electrifying of speakers – but that doesn’t mean viewers won’t tune in. It is, after all, the party’s national convention.
“She’s got to communicate about herself more than anything else,” says Mr. Mellman. “And the issues that she chooses to talk about will do more to illustrate her character and illustrate who she is and what she’s about than anything else.”
Even among Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters, Clinton faces reservations over her honesty and trustworthiness. That’s a hard rap to overcome, given her decades in the public spotlight – and especially after the recent dressing-down by the director of the FBI over her “extremely careless” handling of classified information on her private email server while secretary of State.
Her best way around the character challenge may be through surrogates, strategists say. Just as Bill Clinton made the case for reelecting President Obama more effectively than Mr. Obama himself at the 2012 Democratic convention, so too can others – like her husband, who speaks Tuesday night, and Obama, who speaks Wednesday – make the case for her.
But Clinton can try to channel their arguments herself.
“She needs to reassure the American people that what Barack Obama says is actually true: She’s the most prepared person to take over the presidency” in decades, says former Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa.
Mr. Harkin adds that Clinton should also probably acknowledge that she’s made mistakes, learned from them, and won’t repeat them. And finally, he suggests she try to have an intimate conversation with the American people.
“Just imagine you’re sitting at my kitchen table talking to me, which she has done with me in my house in Iowa,” he says.
Then there’s the Republican nominee. One of the top goals for this convention “is to peel the bark off Donald Trump,” says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. From the dark view of America that Trump presented at his own convention, to his business practices, to his nativist rhetoric, Democratic speakers will have plenty to work with.
A party that’s shifted leftward
The new Democratic platform shows a party that has shifted leftward, with a focus on income inequality, not economic growth. This is no longer Bill Clinton’s party, or in some ways, even Obama’s.
“It is a party animated by the frustrations of the Obama years and reshaped by waves of economic and social activism,” writes William Galston, former domestic policy chief in the Clinton White House, in the Wall Street Journal.
Still, despite the ferment in both parties, the state of play is not parallel. Trump has overrun the Republican establishment; Hillary Clinton is the Democratic establishment.
In a year where voters are demanding change, Clinton’s establishment label could have been a killer. But her opponent is Trump, who faces historically high negatives for a major-party nominee.
“We’re in this bizarre position where the Republicans have nominated the one candidate Hillary can beat, and the Democrats have nominated the one candidate Trump can beat,” says Robert Borosage, co-founder of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future.
Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this article.