Chants of "Bernie!", and boos whenever Hillary Clinton’s name was mentioned, filled the opening hours of the Democratic National Convention, with delegates supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont repeatedly drowning out other speakers with their vocal dissent.
Never mind that after the weekend’s Wikileaks scandal revealed bias against Senator Sanders, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) issued a formal apology, forced the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and moved Senator Sanders’ speech to the final keynote spot. His supporters were largely unappeased.
Indeed, the Vermonter whose insurgent campaign tapped into latent frustration with America’s political system, is now finding that many of those he inspired are unwilling to fall into line. Sanders delegates here emphasize that he’s not directing them, and that any protest activity on the floor is a result of grass-roots activism. That makes the push for unity, now coming from both Mrs. Clinton and Sanders, an even more daunting challenge.
“If we learned one thing from Bernie Sanders, it’s that the movement is about all of us, not him,” says Justin Molito, a union organizer from Connecticut who is attending the convention as a Sanders delegate. “So when he asks us not to protest, I’d respectfully disagree. You have to make a moral choice about what your role is here.”
Mr. Molito says Democrats shouldn’t be scared of the divisions on display, and that he sees the opinions expressed by Bernie delegates as a healthy display of differences, part of a robust democracy. “Unity is a slogan, and if you have an infomercial, the Democratic Convention falls flat,” Molito says. “That said, people will unify to beat [Republican presidential nominee Donald] Trump.”
'No one is more disappointed'
Some Sanders delegates listened to the senator’s keynote speech – which recapped his calls to action and the highlights of his campaign stump speeches, and touted the progressive Democratic platform that he helped influence – with tears streaming down their faces.
“I understand that many people here in this convention hall and around the country are disappointed about the final results of the nominating process. I think it’s fair to say that no one is more disappointed than I am,” Sanders told the crowd, once their cheers died down enough for him to speak. But he went on to list the choices facing the American people and the policies and leadership he believes are needed. “By these measures, any objective observer will conclude that – based on her ideas and her leadership – Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States. The choice is not even close.”
While a few boos could still be heard during his calls to elect Clinton, they were scattered, and the prime-time speeches seemed to be received by a far more unified crowd than the one shouting down speakers a few hours earlier.
Still, between the thousands of antagonistic Bernie-or-Bust protests and rallies filling the streets of Philadelphia and the angry Sanders delegates inside its convention hall, the day underscored the challenge faced by Clinton as she heads into the fall, a deeply unpopular candidate facing off against another deeply unpopular candidate, with poll numbers showing the two to be neck and neck.
Republican nominee Donald Trump, who has tried to magnify and capitalize on the divisions in the Democratic Party, issued a flurry of tweets aimed at disaffected Sanders supporters.
“Hard to believe that Bernie Sanders has done such a complete fold. He got NOTHING for all of the time, energy and money. The V.P. a joke!” Mr. Trump tweeted early in the evening. “Sad to watch Bernie Sanders abandon his revolution. We welcome all voters who want to fix our rigged system and bring back our jobs,” he wrote later, during Sanders’ speech.
'A raw deal'
Many Sanders supporters are angry by what they say is too little real action and some tone-deaf moves on the part of Clinton.
In particular, some Sanders delegates see her running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, as not progressive enough. A poll last week by the Bernie Delegates Network, which represents about two-thirds of the Sanders delegates, found that among potential vice-presidential picks Tim Kaine was an “acceptable” choice to just 3 percent of the delegates who responded, with 88 percent saying he was “unacceptable.”
Take the vice-presidential pick and add to it the WikiLeaks scandal, and “it all reconfirms in the minds of many Bernie delegates that we were given a raw deal, that we are dealing with a rigged system,” said Karen Bernal, a Sanders delegate from California, speaking at a press conference organized by the Bernie Delegates Network.
And while Sanders supporters are glad that DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to resign over the scandal, Clinton’s decision to immediately gave her a position as an “honorary chair” of her campaign was seen as yet another sign of a “rigged system.”
“Debbie Wasserman Schultz stepped down, but now Hillary is adding her to her campaign staff. If she really did want to show party unity, she would have picked a progressive for VP, she would have pressed charges against [Schultz],” says Daniel, a Sanders supporter who travelled to Philadelphia from Corvallis, Ore., to join in protests, and who declined to give his last name. “This isn’t her pushing for party unity. So why should we?”
And as much as Clinton has tried to gain support by painting a dire picture of the alternative – America under “President Trump” – some say that would be a better catalyst for change than a Democratic administration they see as too centrist.
If Trump is elected, “in four years we would have a better Democrat elected,” says Jessica Griffith, a Sanders delegate from Las Vegas who went to a rally at JFK plaza. “It's like we need to burn it down and start over.”
Others were more measured.
“We don’t want to see Trump in the White House,” said Ms. Bernal, the delegate from California. “But we can still do everything we can to make this a more progressive party.”
'All we can really do'
Inside the convention, party unity was a running theme throughout the speeches Monday evening.
Delegates heard from vocal Sanders supporters, including Congresswoman Diane Russell of Maine, who promoted a proposal to reform the DNC’s controversial superdelegate system, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, all of whom aligned themselves firmly behind Clinton.
Comedian Sarah Silverman, a die-hard Sanders backer, took the stage with Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, a former comedian himself.
This year, said Franken, “I’ve been, ‘Hashtag I’m with her.’” And “I’ve been ‘feeling the Bern,’” added Ms. Silverman.
Silverman then launched into a passionate tribute to Bernie and the progressive policies he advocated even as she declared her support for Clinton.
“I will vote for Hillary with gusto as I continue to be inspired and moved to action by the ideals set forward by Bernie, who will never stop fighting for us,” Silverman said.
As the convention hall erupted into dueling chants of “Bernie!” and “Hillary!” Silverman took the microphone for an addendum: “Can I just say, to the ‘Bernie or bust’ people – you’re being ridiculous!”
And unity was an undercurrent in the keynote speeches as well, including Michelle Obama’s, perhaps the best-received speech of the night.
“When she lost eight years ago, she didn’t get angry or disillusioned,” Obama said of Clinton. “Hillary did not pack up and go home. Because as a true public servant, Hillary knows this is so much more than her own desires and disappointments.”
For many Sanders delegates, their main outlet for protest will come on Tuesday, when they stand up for their candidate and vote for him during the roll-call vote.
“That’s all we really can do,” says Sarah Knowlton, a young Sanders delegate from Indiana who says that she draws the line at booing during speeches, but is OK with chanting.
Stephen Woodruff, an attorney and Sanders delegate from the Northern Mariana Islands, says he expects Sanders supporters to find better ways to channel their anger as the convention continues.
“The bottom line is that Trump has the ability to win by capitalizing on the hatred of Hillary by Republicans and capitalizing on the distrust of Hillary in general,” he says. “We don’t have to have our heart behind Hillary, but we do have to understand practical politics.”
Staff writer Story Hinckley contributed reporting from Philadelphia.