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Opinion The unusual — and essential — argument in Clinton’s acceptance speech

Hillary Clinton speaks during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News)
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PHILADELPHIA — The final night of the Democratic convention had a different feel from the first three nights: a tangible excitement among the attendees about being present for the first acceptance speech for a major-party nomination delivered by a woman. Hillary Clinton’s address did not outshine the occasion; how could it? Acceptance speeches rarely dazzle rhetorically.

But Clinton’s speech got the job done. It was — and I mean this as a compliment — a competent speech, with the surprisingly controversial argument that a president needs to be competent.

First, the merely okay: Acceptance speeches tend toward the pedestrian because of their focus, or the lack thereof. Every group must be thanked, every issue referenced, every voter appealed to, lest the failure to mention a key group cost a state on Election Day. (It seems unlikely that an omission in July will change results in November, but campaign operatives are not noted for taking risks.) In this sense, Clinton’s speech was no different. She name-checked the convention speakers before her. She petitioned Bernie Sanders’s supporters for their votes. She ticked off a laundry list of issues: gun control, climate change, immigration, Citizens United and a dozen more. And she ran through her biography for us one more time.

The speech came into its own though when Clinton made the case for herself and against Donald Trump. “He spoke for 70-odd minutes – and I do mean odd,” she quipped, before making an unusual argument:

And he offered zero solutions. But we already know he doesn’t believe these things.

No wonder he doesn’t like talking about his plans.

You might have noticed I love talking about mine.

“I love talking about [plans]” functions superficially as a laugh line. But underneath it is an uncommonly — in the public space at least — frank defense of wonkiness. Confronted with an idea-less opponent, Clinton could have simply noted that he had “zero solutions” and then listed her own. But she went beyond that to make an affirmative case for love of policy. A presidential candidate is suggesting you vote for her because, unlike her opponent, she believes legislation is not boring, that thinking should be celebrated, that governing — especially the presidency — is not for amateurs.

Later in the speech, she returned to the competence argument by questioning Trump’s temperament. That section had perhaps the most quoted line of the speech: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” She described strength as relying on “smarts, judgment [and] cool resolve.” And pointing out that Trump “can’t even handle the rough-and-tumble of a presidential campaign” is a twist on an argument many Obama supporters made in 2008: that the professionalism and success of his primary campaign proved his competence and readiness as an executive.

In a political environment in which experts are derided as “eggheads” in “ivory towers,” candidates sincerely suggest page limits on legislation and party nominees brag about not needing to read, Clinton’s forthright defense of intelligence is an important stand. In raising the issue of competence, Clinton’s speech made the general election less like a contest of Republicans and Democrats and more a fight between intelligence and irrationality. It is discouraging that the need for competence in government is even a point of contention in American politics, but it is encouraging that at least one nominee is standing up for it.

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