True to his word, J. BROOKS SPECTOR arose early to watch much of the final night of the Democratic convention. If the rhetoric did not always soar the way the speeches did the night before, Hillary Clinton’s speech still set a very concrete, specific agenda for her campaign going forward and the entire convention largely seems to have healed the fissure between the two wings of the party.
By the time it was all over, Hillary Rodham Clinton had irrevocably shattered that much talked about “glass ceiling”, becoming the first American woman nominated as the presidential candidate of a major American political party. (Yes, two women have been nominated for the vice presidency, Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin by Democrats and Republicans in 1984 and 2008, respectively, and New York Democratic Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm had had her name put into nomination for the presidency at the 1972 Democratic convention as a protest vote. But all three were a kind of political forebear, rather than ultimately victorious candidates or – crucially – a name at the very top of the ticket.)
In an acceptance speech that was almost relentlessly concrete, bristling with specific policy proposals, the candidate’s rhetoric drove her policy tick-list back to touchstones in her upbringing, and her parents’ parents’ upbringing. They were solid, Midwestern, old-style values – and a kind of secular version of her familial Methodist religious faith. All of this was an effort to re-introduce herself to Americans whom the candidate and many of her party strategists still seem to believe that she is a person whose values are simply not trusted by many voters. (And they are not entirely wrong-headed in this fear. Polling data says a majority of citizens do have a negative view of the candidate – although her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, in fact, tops her negatives. Such discomfiture with the candidates’ along the values dimension is unique for a presidential campaign, according to pollsters and analysts.)
As a result, her speech – a presentation that lasted more than an hour and that was punctuated by numerous chants from the convention crowd of “USA! USA! USA!” – aimed to portray her as a unifier, a consolidator and, in her husband’s words from earlier in the convention, “a change agent” of incremental progress that gets done by virtue of her dogged pursuit of the details of policy, rather than grandiose, showy public moments. Simply put, Clinton argued that the country is “stronger together” in solving its challenges and problems and she is the right person to make that happen.
In describing her address, the New York Times reported, “ ‘Powerful forces are threatening to pull us apart, bonds of trust and respect are fraying,’ said Mrs. Clinton, who worked on the speech until the early hours of Thursday morning. ‘And just as with our founders there are no guarantees. It truly is up to us. We have to decide whether we all will work together so we all can rise together.’
“Mrs. Clinton radiated confidence, from her pungent delivery and easy laugh to the unusually expressive ways she shifted her tone and delighted in her own best lines. She smoothly acknowledged her own limitations and trust issues as a public figure and forcefully challenged Mr. Trump over his claims that he alone could fix America’s problems.
“And after 25 years in a sometimes brutal national spotlight, Mrs. Clinton tried to explain who she is and what drives her — from her Methodist faith to her passion for government policy that could mean all the difference for people. ‘I sweat the details of policy,’ Mrs. Clinton said. ‘Because it’s not just a detail if it’s your kid — if it’s your family. It’s a big deal. And it should be a big deal to your president.’ ”
But for sheer emotional intensity, she was, actually, out-shown by an heartfelt speech from Khizr Khan, the immigrant father of US Army captain Humayun Khan, a first-generation Muslim American, who had died in the line of duty while in Iraq in 2004. Khan insisted Clinton’s presidential election opponent didn’t understand the meaning of the US Constitution in addressing the equal rights of all citizens by virtue of Trump’s intemperate statements. He then “invited” Trump to go visit Arlington National Cemetery to gain at least some understanding of the truth that people of all faiths, ethnicities, genders had given, as Abraham Lincoln had said at another military cemetery, “the last full measure of their devotion” to their nation and its ideals.
And Khan’s message was hammered home by retired Marine four-star General John Allen, an officer who had worked closely with Hillary Clinton at the Centcom military command and as the administration’s coordinator for dealing with ISIS and related groups. Allen praised Clinton’s unswerving attention to detail, to policy and, yet again, for her doggedness and steadiness of purpose. Flanked by a whole gaggle of retired admirals, generals and military medal winners, General Allen’s presentation (and that from Khizr Khan and yet other military figures) was a forceful, even visceral, counterpunch to The Donald’s seemingly content-less braggadocio about his being the only person in the universe who really knows how to deal with the nation’s enemies.
Surprisingly perhaps for Democrats, a group sometimes derided as the be-nice-to-children-and-small-kittens “mommy party”, rather than the stern, security-conscious “daddy” one, Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party seems to have seized a march on the GOP, staking a claim to having become the strong, principled, and clear-eyed defender of America and reliable partner with its allies, as opposed to that wild and crazy fellow in the other room. Reliable. Reliable. Reliable. You will hear that a lot over the next three and months.
Left largely unsaid, but very clearly in the air, was Trump’s tangle over his call for Vladimir Putin’s Russia to inject itself directly into the domestic partisan questions of this presidential campaign, by calling on Russia to use its electronic resources to snoop around for Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. (As the week wore on, it had become increasingly more likely the Russians had been responsible for the mega data dump of Democratic National Committee emails, released via Wikileaks, that had put the onus on the DNC for being well over the line in its support of Clinton versus Bernie Sanders during the primaries.)
Then, live on CNN, as this Trump-Putin story began to unfold (or unravel), veteran GOP strategist Mike Murphy told global viewers that many long-time Republicans were telling him that they were appalled by Trump’s gambit. Or, as Murphy said, “This is what happens when you nominate an egomaniacal bozo as your candidate for president of the United States. He has jumped the shark into complete embarrassment.” No prizes for guessing correctly who is no longer on the Trump family Christmas card list.
Speaking of Sanders – or at least his policy ideas and ideals – it became clear as Hillary Clinton went into the weeds of the policies she embraced as her platform’s planks, just how much of the Sanders agenda she has now adopted. This ranged from pledges to achieve tuition-free education at public tertiary institutions to promises to dial back the political power of those big banks and Wall Street firms, and to enforce payment of a fair share of federal taxes by such institutions – and their leaders. And we’ll hear a great deal about the black hole of Donald Trump’s taxes in the next several months as well.
In fact, the details of her acceptance speech took on a distinctly modern version of the venerable promise of the Rooseveltian New Deal – with the kinds of policies that are aimed, at least in part, to appeal to wavering Democrats (and former Democrats) of the blue collar variety. Listening to this texture of speechmaking, I could not help but think of how my grandfather, a staunch union organiser from the 1930s and 40s, and a man who had worked with his hands all his life, would have been proud, once again, to reclaim his Democratic Party heritage – although he might possibly have been a bit non-plussed by the some of the new-style rhetorical flourishes and appeals to all those new constituencies. While he was obviously a product of his own times so many years ago, he would, nevertheless, have intuitively understood this embrace of America’s diversity and the full panoply of ethnicities on display in Philadelphia since Monday – as Hillary Clinton now represented the largest constituency of all to be fully embraced with a presidential candidate.
The night before, the Democrats strutted their oratorical stuff with a glittering line-up that included President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine, and former Defense Secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta, among a long list of others who oscillated between strong endorsements of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and vivid take-downs of her opponent, as with Joe Biden’s trademark that the Donald’s entire rhetorical edifice was pure “malarkey”, or Michael Bloomberg’s dissection of Trump that, rather than being a business genius, Trump was simply a garden-variety con man. Ouch. Watch for that line in a future campaign ad for Hillary Clinton.
In discussing the president’s speech on Wednesday, Michael Grunwald at Politico wrote, “President Obama sent a simple message Wednesday night: Yes, we still can. Obama’s convention speech in Philadelphia framed the 2016 election in a very Obama way: The audacity of hope over the politics of fear, optimism over darkness, solutions over slogans, togetherness over division, a supremely qualified public servant in Hillary Clinton over an amateur-hour con artist in Donald Trump. America, he declared, is already great, and Clinton will make it greater … ‘She’s made mistakes, just like I have, just like we all do,’ he said [of Clinton]. ‘That’s what happens when you try.’ ” In addressing Trump, Obama had added, “He’s selling the American people short. We are not a fragile or frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order.”
And turning to the vice president Biden, Grunwald had also noted, “His speech included a litany of Biden-isms – ‘literally,’ ‘never, never, ever,’ ‘I mean this sincerely,’ ‘I’m deadly serious’ – that have become a kind of running soundtrack in the White House…. He delivered an efficiently brutal takedown of Trump as a cynical, empathy-deprived egomaniac who ‘doesn’t have a clue about the middle class,’ which is the ultimate insult in Bidenworld, and inspired chants of ‘Not a Clue’ from the delighted crowd. Biden also pointed out that the catchphrase Trump delivers with such glee, ‘You’re fired,’ is not the kind of thing that nice people enjoy saying. He scoffed that Trump is now running as a champion of ordinary people, prompting a classic Biden putdown: ‘That’s a bunch of malarkey!’ ”
If the Democrats wanted to escape from their convention in Philadelphia as a much more united party than they went into it, they achieved that. If they wanted to set out the main lines of their policy agenda, and their attack lines against Trump, they achieved that as well. Now, going forward, it will be important to see how these take hold (or not) with voters that provides a bounce (a convention bump) in popularity and support (or doesn’t) that puts her in the lead convincingly, and most especially with independents, undecideds. This will be crucial with precisely those groups in the ten or so “purple” or “battleground” states that will make or break a winning formula for a victory in November. DM
Photo: Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks on stage during final day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, 28 July 2016. Hillary Clinton formally accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party as their presidential candidate in the 2016 election. EPA/SHAWN THEW
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