Hillary Clinton’s convention week featured two of the most effective communicators in the Democratic Party offering different images of the nominee. In Bill Clinton’s version, she is a “change maker” who has “never been satisfied with the status quo.” In Barack Obama’s telling, she has the “intelligence” and “judgment” to carry forward his administration’s ideals into a third term, because the status quo is pretty darn good.
When the spotlight finally came, the nominee was very much herself — a tenacious plodder, advocating half-a-loaf liberalism. This is closer to Obama’s description than her husband’s. In Philadelphia, she made the high-stakes decision to present herself as conventional, normal and safe, in sharp contrast to a small, unstable man “moved by fear and pride.”
If this is a normal election — in which the composition of the electorate and the turnout of various groups roughly match recent presidential contests — Clinton’s argument should be enough. If this is an anti-establishment wave election, she has the worst possible political profile — boasting of her royal résumé during the French Revolution.
There is no doubt about Clinton’s ideological framework. Down with Citizens United! Climate change is real! Raise the minimum wage! Free college for everyone! Clinton called this agenda “bold,” which is true in the same way as Donald Trump calling himself “a really smart person.” She said nothing creative from the stage that would have offended your average Bernie Sanders supporter (except the ones who believe America should defend itself with truculent self-righteousness rather than weapons).
Clinton missed her best opening when it came to describing America’s unifying ideals. In Cleveland, Republicans — shockingly, disturbingly — left this rhetorical ground unoccupied. In his convention speech, Obama skillfully took this ground. But Clinton could not hold it. She strained mightily, consulted a Broadway musical and produced a slogan: “Stronger Together.”
I get that inspiration is not Clinton’s “thing.” But a candidate has weeks and months to produce a memorable convention speech. Clinton’s speechwriting process — which includes some fine writers and too many political overseers — delivered the functional equivalent of a State of the Union address. The speech sounded so much like the product of a committee that you could almost picture the Post-it notes.
In making her case about America’s future, Clinton highlighted her book (“It Takes a Village”) published in 1996. The liberal communitarianism found in those pages does not seem particularly well-suited for outreach to working-class whites, if that is one of her goals. In her attempt to identify with a cartoon version of the blue-collar everyman, her focus was on economics. The progressive version of homo economicus leaves out cultural matters entirely. What assurance did Clinton provide that Democratic elites even tolerate more conservative views on, say, abortion? What was her version of school uniforms or welfare reform — her husband’s symbols of outreach to cultural conservatives? As a policy matter, Democratic centrism is still dead.
Clinton’s defense of the honor of the military against Trump’s ridicule was effective and needed. But it does not count as innovative policy outreach. Similarly, the mention of her Methodist faith was an improvement on Trump’s secular silence. But it was brief and untethered to the rest of her reasoning — more an ornament than a foundation.
The speech shined in attack mode — dismissing Trump as the outsourcer in chief, the breaker of alliances, the purveyor of casual misogyny, the Twitter troll who must be denied the nuclear codes. It says something that the most negative aspects of Clinton’s remarks were the most memorable. She is a fighter. And Democrats seem happy that their policy wonk moonlights as a cage boxer.
In the speech, she put her finger on the most frightening element of Trump’s appeal: “Our founders fought a revolution and wrote a Constitution so America would never be a nation where one person had all the power.” It is fair to say that the founders would have held the main thesis of Trump’s candidacy — the promise of a man on horseback to save a frightened and supine nation — in utter contempt. It also says something that one of the strongest attacks on the Republican nominee is the defense of self-government.
This is an extraordinary political moment. Any reasonable Republican presidential contender other than Trump probably would be beating Clinton handily. Any reasonable Democratic contender other than Clinton probably would be beating Trump handily. The parties, in their wisdom, have chosen the untrusted against the unstable, the uninspiring against the unfit. Take your pick, and take your chances.