Now that it’s over, now that Hillary Clinton has met her historic moment, it turns out the Democratic strategy for the week was blindingly clear and, in that rare thing for a political gathering, even coherent.
Clinton didn’t give a great speech. She doesn’t do great speeches. It didn’t soar. It didn’t offer up a theme that touched people in unexpected ways. She left the great speeches to the Obamas and to Bill and settled for the promise that when they soared, they all soared in her service.
What she did was to give an effective speech, which is what she can do at her best, and the speech set about to effectively promise that if you’ve had doubts about her – and every poll says that many do – what you shouldn’t doubt is her ability to govern effectively.
It wasn’t about progressive politics, although she hit all the right progressive notes. She thanked the Bernie people. She said that if they were furious, they had a right to be, and that she accepted their cause as her cause. You may have noticed that not everyone in the crowd was won over by her appeal and that even as she praised Bernie Sanders, he sat stone-faced.
It was only tangentially about being the first woman president. She had a very nice line about how breaking any barrier made it easier for all of those who face barriers to break through them. But the moment, the one that brought tears, was the pre-speech hug with Chelsea, mother to daughter, Chelsea reminding us in her speech of Hillary’s relationship with her mother. That was the moment. And as Hillary lingered in that embrace, many of us couldn’t help but linger, too,
But what the speech set out to be was the anti-Trump speech, which The Donald, in all his Trumpian glory, had basically written for her.
Because Democrats own the White House, they got to have their convention last. They were the home team. And they used the angry, lock-her-up, America-in-decline, close-the-borders, make-our-allies-pay-or-else Trump convention to full advantage as the context for everything that happened in Philadelphia.
The Democratic convention screamed – just to make sure you noticed – inclusivity. It may have stolen Reagan’s shining city on a hill, but you couldn’t help notice that the people living in this 21st-century American city looked very different from those in Reagan’s 1980s. Trump had ceded the high ground on patriotism, which Clinton rushed generals in to fill. She hit him with a series of jabs. “He says he knows more about ISIS than the generals.” Pause. Pause some more. “No, Donald, you don’t.”
Like Barack Obama, she chose promise over Trumpian dystopia. And, as Clinton has repeated throughout her career, she said the problems we face need a collective village and not an I-can-fix-it authoritarian who says, “I am your voice” – a promise, she said, that should set off alarms for anyone concerned about the American democratic project.
What Trump and Clinton share are huge trust gaps. Clinton didn’t put herself on the couch. That’s what Bill does. She didn’t say, as she often does, she had been unfairly caricatured. She left that to the president. She conceded that not everyone gets her, but if you were waiting for the reveal as to who she really is, the closest you got was she’s the woman who won’t be “throwed.”
She said the real trust issue came in the job of the presidency and could anyone truly imagine Donald Trump as the man in the Oval Office.
Her speech was best when she icily mocked Trump, and, in that mockery, mocked the idea of Trump as president. She borrowed Jackie Kennedy’s line about the danger of “little men” (she didn’t mean Mike Bloomberg, as Trump did when he said Thursday that he wanted to “hit” someone) and said, in the line that threatened to break Twitter, “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”
“Do you really think Donald Trump has the temperament to be commander in chief?” she continued. “Donald Trump can’t even handle the rough and tumble of a presidential campaign. He loses his cool at the slightest provocation. Imagine, if you dare, imagine him in the Oval Office facing a crisis.”
Hillary Clinton, the most predictable of candidates, one who gladly accepts the word “steady” as a compliment, offered up a Trump who falls somewhere between unsteady and unhinged – the guy who mocks the disabled, who bans people based on their religion, who divides by race and ethnicity, who, well, you know the list. And if there’s anything you can depend on from Clinton, it’s a to-do list.
But she wisely left the emotional slam at Trump to people who had more than felt its sting. The moment of the night came courtesy of Khizr Khan, whose son was a captain the U.S. Army and killed in Iraq in 2004.
“We are honored,” he said, standing next to his wife, “to stand here as the parents of Captain Humayun Khan, and as patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to our country.”
He said if it had been up to Trump, Khad would never have been in uniform, would never have been there to instruct his troops to take cover while he approached the vehicle with the explosives that killed him.
“Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims,” Khan said. “He disrespects other minorities, women, judges, even his own party leadership. He vows to build walls and ban us from the country.”
Kahn pulled out his pocket Constitution to say, “Have you ever read the U.S. Constitution. I will gladly lend you a copy,” before finishing, “You have sacrificed nothing. And no one.”
It was devastating. It needs to be seen to be appreciated, and I’m sure you’ll find it in a TV ad coming your way soon.
For Clinton’s part, she closed her speech with a story you’ve heard, of little Hillary coming home crying because someone had bullied her and her mother, she said, literally blocking the door and forcing her to go outside to confront the bully.
You don’t have to guess why she brought this up, or which role she would have Donald Trump play in the updated version. And if the speech worked – and the polls will show, eventually – you’ll be left trusting, if nothing else, that she won’t be bullied now.
If that doesn’t exactly promise a high-minded battle of ideas over the next months, it does promise a battle. And, given the two candidates left standing, what else could you expect?
Mike Littwin writes for The Colorado Independent (www.coloradoindependent.com).