WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — You can tell when a campaign believes it is having a good night; the staff projects live cable news broadcasts onto big screens at the candidate’s primary-night rally. CNN was on all evening at Hillary Clinton’s packed Tuesday night victory party at the Palm Beach County Convention Center. Then, after Clinton was projected to win Ohio, she took the stage and all but declared that the primary race is ending and the general election starting. Clinton delivered the speech she has wanted to give for weeks, debuting the case she will make to the country between now and November. And it is a pretty good one.
After Tuesday night, it is no longer presumptuous for Clinton to begin her great pivot to the general election. She trounced Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, and she essentially fought him to a draw in Illinois and Missouri. She added to her delegate lead, and she quieted concerns that she cannot win in the industrial Midwest. The Sanders “revolution” does not seem to be launching, which deeply undercuts his campaign narrative. Sanders also lost more hope that Democratic “super delegates,” who are not bound to one candidate or the other, will begin to defect from Clinton’s camp to his.
Clinton began her speech by all but telling Sanders to pack it in. “I want to congratulate Sen. Sanders for the vigorous campaign he’s waging,” Clinton said, which, on a night like Tuesday, is essentially giving him credit for trying.
Then she introduced her general election pitch, which stressed experience and seriousness. “The next president will walk into the Oval Office next January, sit down in that desk, and start making decisions that will affect the lives and the livelihoods of everyone in this country, indeed everyone on this planet,” she said, before methodically listing off the “three big tests” the next president will face and arguing that GOP front-runner Donald Trump fails each of them.
“First,” she said, “can you make positive differences in people’s lives?” She mentioned a series of policies she would like to pursue — lowering student debt, providing affordable child care, investing in infrastructure. One could object to one proposal or the other — cutting student loan interest rates for everyone, for example, instead of just for those who need it. But she brought the speech back to her larger point about political responsibility. “Every candidate makes promises like this. But every candidate owes it to you to be clear and direct about what our plans will cost and how we’re going to make them work,” she said, establishing a standard that she has satisfied more than any other presidential candidate this year. “That’s the difference between running for president and being president,” she declared, eliciting some of the loudest cheers of the night.
The next test, Clinton explained, is “can you keep us safe?” “Our commander in chief has to be able to defend our country, not embarrass it,” she said. “When we hear a candidate for president call for rounding up 12 million immigrants, banning all Muslims from entering the United States, when he embraces torture, that doesn’t make him strong, it makes him wrong.” Clinton nailed Trump for being reckless. But she is already running a risk not putting national security first on the list of presidential priorities. She needs to expand this section to explain what she would do rather than merely what she would avoid doing. Foreign affairs should be one of Clinton’s core strengths.
Clinton’s third and final test is the most pointedly anti-Trump: “Can you bring our country together again?” She condemned Trump’s “bluster and bigotry,” saying that “to be great, we can’t be small,” she said. “We can’t lose what made America great in the first place.” Once again, she contrasted Trump’s rhetoric with her experience. “Running for president is hard, but being president is harder,” she said. “No one person can succeed in the job without seeking and finding common ground.” Clinton has a record of working with Republicans; like her foreign policy point, she should develop this one to show off her strengths as much as highlight Trump’s weaknesses.
Notably, Clinton also ignored warnings that she has wandered too far from the center on immigration, speaking near the end of her speech about “a day when deportations end and families are reunited.” This is probably a sign she believes that locking up the Latino vote is more important in the general election than trying to soothe concerns about illegal immigration among other voters that Democrats may have traditionally attempted to court. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
It may be just as well that Clinton had to spend several more weeks beating back the Sanders insurgency. The longer-than-expected Democratic primary race has given her a chance to hone her general election message against the Republican front-runner before she really began to shift her sights toward November. Tuesday night’s address was much cleaner than her first few drafts. Among other things, she wisely removed this meh line: “America never stopped being great; we need to make America whole.” She also delivered her speech with the conviction she sometimes lacks.
Stressing experience may be a questionable strategy in an anti-establishment election year. But her experience is Clinton’s greatest strength. She must show that she is the competent one and that Trump, if he claims the GOP nomination, simply is not.