In what was certainly her finest political moment yet, Hillary Clinton commanded the stage in Philadelphia last night with a disciplined summation of her political campaign.
Remarkably, she was the only primetime speaker at the Democratic convention to address the struggling and disaffected. I have no idea why she was alone in delivering a message of such importance, but when she did, she made no equivocations about it:
“I’ve heard from so many of you who feel like the economy just isn’t working. Some of you are frustrated — even furious. And you know what? You’re right.”
As I listened to Clinton extend this recognition―and in such plain language―I was relieved. So much of the celebration of the status quo that stretched for days prior was, in effect, a tone-deaf denial of this fact. Now Clinton gave the necessary course correction with no apologies.
In fact, she did much more than that. Progressives like me were thrilled to hear her simple but powerful formulation: “I believe that our economy isn’t working the way it should because our democracy isn’t working the way it should.” I dared to hope that a discussion of monopoly would follow; it did not. (A promise to repeal Citizens United did.) In the days and weeks to come, the more the Clinton campaign aligns itself with these words, the more it will win over skeptics.
For me, one of the most surprisingly effective elements of the speech was Mrs. Clinton’s denunciation of Donald Trump. She did not dwell on the Republican nominee at length; but when she did bring him up, her targets were well chosen and her voice was resolute. This was but one sign of a welcome change from “political rally” Clinton, seen (by me at least) as more focused on revving up her crowd than delivering a message. Last night, she was poised and determined, either well-coached or well aware that not all who were listening to her were disposed favorably. Rather than stack her applause lines in quick succession, she meted them out a comfortable pace.
Clinton dealt nimbly with the pervasive failure to provide an argument for the fall campaign. She did not rectify it, as I dared to hope she would, but she did stitch the many policy bullet points of her speech together in a way many people, especially many women, will relate to: “It’s true,” she admitted, “I sweat the details of policy.” She sounded like a mother who was planning a family vacation―maybe not the fanciful one that the rest of the family hoped, but one that they could be assured would happen. I would be happy to go on that vacation.
For all the many stirring and reassuring moments in Clinton’s speech, last night’s convention provided a number of reasons for serious concern. First among these is the fact that, except for a passing salute to the Iran deal, the entire foreign policy portion of Clinton’s speech could have been lifted from the Republican convention. Granted, it would have to be delivered by one in a dwindling number of sane people still willing to link themselves to that enterprise. But all the same, this fall Americans will choose between electing a rational, careful modulated or an exuberantly hysterical take on what is essentially the same worldview. It’s as if the 2008 primary defeat of Clinton, premised most importantly on her support for the Iraq War, never happened.
When it comes to foreign policy, the American people do not have a two-party system. In part this is the fault of progressives, and Bernie Sanders in particular, who decline to take any serious or sustained interest in international questions. We will pay for this dearly, in every sense of the word. Close to $3 trillion dollars has been wasted in the brutally unjust war in Iraq alone, and its dreadful consequences now stretch to European shores. The demented desire for war among the American political class exacts huge costs, including from the American people, who see, along with their casualties, the ambitions for their own government sharply curtailed.
If we are, in fact, in the midst of a party realignment, it will be in large part on this set of issues around which new politics will pivot. After all, on trade agreements, both parties have made concessions. On foreign policy, neither has made any serious effort to draw closer to the American people. If there is a serious military deployment in the first term of our next president, one that has to be “explained” to the American people rather than its reasons being obvious on their face, there will certainly be a viable third party challenge in 2020.
Yesterday evening’s other discordant note was related to, and just as troubling as, the hawkish foreign policy on display. For some inexplicable reason, the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign felt that a parade of speeches praising former president Ronald Reagan was a compelling prelude to Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech.
Though this seems at first glance to be comparatively trivial, I was struck by the force of it mainly because it was so gratuitous. It was a choice; an item of complete discretion. An audience will expect a nominee to run through positions on foreign policy, for example; and some of us will grimace, knowing full well when we disagree. But Ronald Reagan? The man whose politics and presidency are most responsible for destroying modern liberalism? We neither need nor expect him to come in for such extensive praise at a Democratic conventions and―when he does―I assume it is because the party is trying to tell us something.
It is this sort of thing that leads a person to worry. There are a number of ways to imagine a Clinton win in November: a grand mobilization of the Democratic coalition (which I favor); a centrist campaign that vilifies or diminishes the left in favor of Republican “centrists”; or, what seems likely based upon last night, both! Normally being “all things to all people” results in confusion and distrust, something Mrs. Clinton can ill afford. But in this particular case, her campaign may be betting that, in light of Mr. Trump, many voters will be motivated to overcome reservations and cast a ballot for her anyway.
The indecision over the scope and nature of the audience for the Clinton campaign, though borne from caution, is nevertheless a huge gamble, one predicated on turnout. As I’ve said previously and in connection to this convention, the Clinton people, in spurning important elements of the Obama coalition, have assumed a huge burden unto themselves and (simultaneously) absolved any Democrat from duty-bound loyalty. After all, the option to run as a Democrat has always been open to Hillary Clinton.
Yet, for reasons known only to herself, she prefers to carve out a win within Reagan’s political idiom rather than challenge it.