Hillary Clinton had a lengthy to-do list here Thursday night: Reintroduce one of the most famous people in the world. Take down Donald Trump. Lay out a policy agenda with specifics. Be hopeful and optimistic.
Most of all, it was to make the case that a politician who embodies the establishment and political status quo is the safest change-maker in this election.
Clinton’s message has never been as succinct as Trump’s. Her approach to governing is full of grays to his blacks and whites. She offers progress in small steps rather than bold strokes. She would try to make the system work rather than truly shake it up.
On Thursday night, she described a country on edge, torn by division, threatened from terrorism and economically insecure and the choice ahead as this: “We have to decide whether we’re going to work together, so we can all rise together.”
She accused Trump of transporting the Republican Party from Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” to the prospect of “midnight in America,” and issued a pledge not to let fear win out in November.
“We are clear-eyed about what our country is up against,” she said. “But we are not afraid. We will rise to the challenge, just as we always have.”
Rhetorically, Clinton did not try to compete with some of the speakers who had gone before her this week. Her speech was more prosaic than poetic. She acknowledged as much when she said, “The truth is, through all these years of public service, the ‘service’ part has always come easier to me than the ‘public’ part.” But it was nonetheless a confident and crisp performance by the Democratic nominee.
Her acceptance speech was the culmination of a Democratic convention that has offered a sharp contrast, in style and substance, to the Republican convention in Cleveland a week ago.
But all the speeches and videos and personal testimonials and uplifting music couldn’t fully disguise the reality that Clinton has struggled to break away from Trump, whose flaws have led a majority of the country to conclude that he is not qualified to be president. Republicans seemed to do all sorts of things wrong in Cleveland last week, from the sequence of speeches on the early nights to the embarrassment of allowing Ted Cruz to speak without a commitment to endorse Trump. Ultimately, it didn’t seem to hurt.
Trump got a modest bounce after nights of disunity and an acceptance speech widely characterized as dark and threatening.
By the standards of Cleveland, Democrats have done much better this week. In terms of star power and sheer glamor, the Democrats have had it all over the Republicans. The most hard-line supporters of Bernie Sanders aside, the week’s choreography has been prepared with clear goals in mind night by night.
And yet, few Democrats here were anticipating anything other than a hard-fought campaign from now until November, in part because of their nominee’s vulnerabilities.
Clinton sought to build on the foundation laid by those who had spoken before. She said President Barack Obama had not gotten the credit he deserves for avoiding a depression in the early months of his presidency. But to those the recovery has passed by, she added, “Some of you are frustrated – even furious. And you know what? You’re right. It’s not yet working the way it should.”
She spoke directly to Trump’s constituency of white, working-class voters, a group most speakers here this week have overlooked. “Democrats are the party of working people,” she said. “But we haven’t done a good enough job showing that we get what you’re going through, and that we’re going to do something about it.”
The Gallup organization reported earlier in the week that, for the first time in the campaign, Clinton’s image had equaled Trump’s in terms of negativity. Through most of the year, the GOP nominee has had the higher negatives, but now the lines have converged. Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook, speaking at a forum hosted by The Washington Post, said he took issue with those exact numbers, but did not dispute that Clinton still has work to do on that front.
An even higher percentage of people in some polls say they do not believe Clinton is honest and trustworthy, and the percentage who believe the country is seriously off track remains at high levels. All of those indicators together provide the headwinds for a candidate who seeks a third consecutive term for the Democrats.
All of which is why so much seemed at stake when she addressed the cheering delegates and guests who were packed into Wells Fargo Arena to witness a moment in history as Clinton became the first woman to accept the nomination of a major political party.All week, Democrats in Philadelphia were building toward Clinton’s speech, clearing away as best they could the questions and obstacles in her path to the White House.
It was a steady march of high-octane oratory from party luminaries.First lady Michelle Obama provided validation of Clinton from the perspective of a mother and a close watcher of what it takes to be president – and gave an emotional lift to a convention that had begun on notes of protest, discord and embarrassment over leaked emails from the Democratic National Committee.
Bill Clinton provided personal stories of their relationship designed to humanize his wife.
Mindful of the hunger for change abroad in the country, he argued, with mostly small data points, that through steady and dogged effort, she has tackled one problem after another and always made things a little better.
Vice President Joe Biden’s fiery rhetoric slammed Trump as someone who had “not a clue” about the middle class – or anything else. “His lack of empathy and compassion can be summed up in a phrase I suspect he’s most proud of having made famous: ‘You’re fired.’ I’m not joking. Think about that.”
President Obama, seeking to pass the baton to Clinton to help protect his legacy, went high concept with a speech about the obligations of democracy and the greatness of a diverse America. He sought to steal patriotism and love of country from Trump. He asserted that those who threaten American values, including “homegrown demagogues,” have always failed.
In her speech, Clinton continued the attacks on Trump, calling him temperamentally unfit to serve whose capacity to handle a crisis has been called into question by his actions during the campaign. “Imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis,” she said. “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”
Clinton and her team say the election will not turn on those indicators alone, that with Trump also seen as flawed the voters will be looking at other factors as they make their decision. They note that there are other statistics that suggest the public is of mixed minds about the conditions. The most important of those is President Obama’s approval ratings, which are now averaging just above 50 percent. If history is a guide, that bodes well for the Democrats in November.
Beyond that, Clinton counts on her belief that the public is looking for results and therefore a candidate who has real policy proposals, not sweeping promises. She says that, in the end, voters will reject a candidate who says that “I alone can fix it,” as Trump put it so directly in his acceptance speech.
Her philosophy is the opposite, summed in the title of the book she wrote years ago and invoked again Thursday night, that it takes a village and not a strong man. “No one gets through life alone,” she said.
The presidential election probably will turn on a calculation that all voters will be making, a balance between the desire for change and the fear of risk – the change Trump’s outsider candidacy promises vs. the risk his presidency might bring. Clinton was not, in the end, trying to sell her soft side on Thursday night. Instead she was looking to persuade even those who have their doubts about honesty that her experience as a political insider offers the better combination of change and risk.
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(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Dan Balz