On Wednesday, Clinton ceded the role of anti-Trump to Joe Biden and the status of exciting trailblazer to Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California.
“I know something about the slings and arrows she’ll face and believe me, this former district attorney and attorney general can handle them all,” Clinton said in an address aired live from her home in Chappaqua, N.Y.
Still popular with many Democrats, blamed by others for losing in 2016 and divisive for much of the country, the first woman to head a major-party ticket served Wednesday as a bridge to another historic first — and a warning of all that can go wrong.
“For four years, people have said to me, ‘I didn’t realize how dangerous he was!’ ‘I wish I could go back and do it over!’ Or worst — ‘I should have voted!’ ” Clinton said. ‘Well, this can’t be another ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ election.”
Had Clinton won, this convention would be a celebration of her first-term accomplishments and a rallying cry for another four years. Instead, it’s a nightly siren blast against what Clinton and other Democrats call Trump’s efforts to suppress votes or invite foreign interference.
“If you vote by mail, request your ballot now and send it back as soon as you can. If you vote in person, do it early,” Clinton said. “Bring a friend and wear a mask. Become a poll worker. Most of all, no matter what, vote.”
Although part of the evening honored women of Clinton’s generation, it amounted to a declaration that a younger generation is rising.
Clinton spoke in the virtual company of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), as well as several younger women who are closer contemporaries of the night’s headliner, vice-presidential nominee Harris, the first woman of color on a major-party ticket.
Clinton’s role is partly elder statesman and partly keeper of the dream of electing a female president, a dream Harris also pursued this cycle.
The former nominee is a link to Harris’s political generation, said Jennifer Palmieri, a top aide to Clinton in 2016, but she rejected the notion that Clinton is handing the baton to a new set of female leaders. “It’s not a handoff,” she said. “Joe Biden is the nominee.”
Clinton, 72, chose not to make a third run for president this year after losing the nomination to Barack Obama in 2008 and the election to Trump four years ago.
She admired the Democratic primary’s largest-ever field of female contenders, though she thought Biden had the best chance of beating Trump, two people who have spoken with her said.
Those people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said Clinton concluded that she would be more help to the party by engaging female voters and acting as a resource on national security issues than by running herself. Clinton served as secretary of state under President Barack Obama.
She has held two fundraising events for Biden this year, and both she and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, plan more.
It is not yet clear whether Harris can help galvanize Black voters and others who did not turn out in expected numbers in 2016. Clinton’s election was considered a near certainty by leaders of both parties up until election night, and among the factors in her loss was the large number of Democrats who stayed home.
That’s where Clinton’s appeal against complacency comes in, Palmieri said.
“She is a personification of what is at stake in this election, among other things,” said Palmieri, whose new book “She Proclaims” makes the case that women’s success should not be defined by metrics built by men.
“I don’t think there are many Democrats who are overconfident or who don’t understand how hard it will be to win, but if you need a reminder of how much Democrats are going to have to overperform to actually out-and-out win this thing, she is the best possible spokesperson for that,” Palmieri said.
Clinton has been making that argument on the speaking circuit, saying Democrats must guard against what she says are Trump’s efforts to suppress the vote and undermine a fair election. She is keenly aware of intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia intervened in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf.
“We know from recent intelligence reports that the Russians are once again trying to favor and elect Donald Trump,” Clinton told an Atlantic Council audience on Monday.
A former senator from New York, Clinton did not overlap with Harris in Congress, but the two have numerous connections.
Among them is Harris’s sister, Maya Harris, who was a top policy adviser to Clinton four years ago. A Clinton campaign spokesman, Tyrone Gayle, became Harris’s Senate spokesman. Both Clinton and Harris spoke at a memorial service for Gayle in 2018, when he died of cancer at 30.
On Wednesday, Clinton held up the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as one example of what she called a failure of leadership.
“I wish Donald Trump knew how to be a president, because America needs a president right now,” Clinton said.
The importance of female voters to the Democratic Party has become starkly evident since Trump’s election. Women have led many of the organizations opposing the president, and a large number of female Democrats won House seats in 2018. Polls show that Biden’s polling advantage is driven largely by women.
The party formally recognized that Wednesday. With a program featuring female performers and a celebration of 100 years of women’s suffrage, it was also designed in part to showcase the historic nature of Harris’s candidacy and her relative youth. She is 55; Biden is 77.
In an interview last week with the 19th, an online news portal, Clinton did not rule out a formal role in a Biden administration.
“I’m ready to help in any way I can, because I think this will be a moment where every American — I don’t care what party you are, I don’t care what age, race, gender, I don’t care — every American should want to fix our country,” Clinton said.
A representative for Clinton did not respond to a request for comment on her speech or her potential future role, but a longtime Clinton adviser and Democratic strategist said the possibility of further public service is real.
“I’d love to see her join the Cabinet, be a special representative somewhere or an ambassador,” said that person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Clinton herself considers any such discussion premature.
For now, Clinton relishes her role as a goad to Trump. Her increasingly cheeky Twitter feed this week featured a dry assessment of a phone interview the president did with Fox News on Monday.
She noted that Trump went “from acting incredulous that I suggested he’ll challenge election results to confirming he will challenge election results in about a minute.”
Trump, for his part, appears not to have fully moved on from the hostility he showed Clinton in 2016. He still calls her “Crooked Hillary,” and chants of “Lock her up” still mark his campaign events.
Ahead of her speech Wednesday, Trump tweeted a video alleging that the Obama administration spied on him in 2016, a notion that Democrats forcefully reject. “Welcome, Barack and Crooked Hillary. See you on the field of battle!” Trump tweeted.
Obama also addresses the convention Wednesday.
Clinton congratulated Biden in a tweet Wednesday that included a candid photograph of her with Obama and the former vice president.
“We have 75 days left to elect him the next president. Let’s make them count,” Clinton wrote.