Hillary Clinton faced a high bar Thursday night: Present a clear message for her campaign. Unite a leftward-shifting Democratic Party and expand its appeal. Take on Donald Trump, but on her terms, not his. And reveal something of herself, a challenge for a woman who is famously guarded.
A high-wattage roster of speakers – from President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama to Vice President Joe Biden and billionaire Michael Bloomberg – had prepared the way for her the night before. Now the light shone on Mrs. Clinton, a source of both inspiration and scorn, after decades in public life.
Her speech was well received, though the final verdict on her candidacy will come in November. If nothing else, from the moment she took the stage on the final night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Clinton already had history on her side.
“Tonight, we’ve reached a milestone in our nation’s march toward a more perfect union: the first time that a major party has nominated a woman for president,” Clinton said.
Unity was the theme of the convention, captured in the slogan “Stronger Together.” Most immediately, it was a bid to attract supporters of her former rival, Bernie Sanders. More broadly, Clinton sought to unite the nation at a time of racial tension, rising nativism, economic anxiety, and the threat of terrorism. And to the rest of the world, it was a plea for unity in the fight against extremism, global warming, and anti-democratic forces.
But most fundamentally, Clinton sought to convey optimism about the future, painting a stark contrast to the dystopic view of America embedded in Mr. Trump’s address last week at the Republican convention.
“He wants to divide us from the rest of the world and from each other. He’s betting that the perils of today’s world will blind us to its unlimited promise. He’s taken the Republican Party a long way, from morning in America to midnight in America,” Clinton said, echoing a popular 1984 campaign ad for Ronald Reagan.
That invocation was also a reach across the partisan aisle to disaffected Republicans, alarmed by Trump’s takeover of the GOP. And it was Clinton’s takedown of the billionaire, whose name she mentioned 22 times, that was the most bracing part of her presentation. She sought, at least in part, to make the November election an up-or-down choice on Trump.
“I’m not sure it’s possible to make it just a referendum on him,” says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “That’s part of the strategy, but she also has to pass a threshold for folks.”
He was alluding to the significant challenge Clinton faces in boosting her public image, hampered by questions about her character and doubts about her honesty and trustworthiness. The good news for Clinton is that Trump is seen even more negatively by the public than she is.
But even if it’s a “lesser of two evils” election, Clinton and her campaign are still hoping to warm her up. Before Clinton spoke, daughter Chelsea delivered a heart-felt testimonial to a devoted mother and now grandmother, and the night before, former President Bill Clinton used his considerable skill as a communicator to sing the praises of his wife.
Still, Hillary Clinton has always been more work horse than show horse, and her campaign has striven to overcome her deficits as a politician. In some ways, the video about Clinton presented before her speech – including footage of her speaking in a relaxed, kitchen-table setting – was more effective than the speech itself.
Creating the appearance of a united Democratic Party at the Philadelphia convention was another imperative. Sanders was fully on board in trying to tame the progressive “revolution” he had fomented – and lost control of, to some degree. The “Bernie or Bust” movement visibly and vocally resisted Clinton, but by Thursday night, a coordinated effort by the two campaigns masked images and cries of dissent, for the most part.
The week began with a bang: the forced resignation of the party chair, after WikiLeak-ed emails revealed a bias for Clinton within the Democratic National Committee.
The emails confirmed the suspicions of Sanders and his supporters, but the Vermont senator had already endorsed Clinton and delivered a supportive speech to the convention. And on Monday night, he delivered a supportive speech to the convention. By the end of the convention, most Sanders delegates either said they would vote for Clinton or were willing to consider it.
“I am still processing everything,” says Susana Duran, a young Sanders delegate from Atlanta. “I will be watching her closely – her commitment to college affordability, her soft imperialism, her corporate ties.”
Those attending the convention are among the most politically active, and the most committed to their respective candidates. But within the overall electorate, 90 percent of “consistent” Sanders supporters already say they’re ready to vote for the former secretary of State, according to the Pew Research Center.
To be sure, both parties had news-filled conventions, marked by controversy and division. Neither was the predictable infomercial that parties strive for.
But the Democrats, in nominating their “establishment” candidate, enter the general election more united than the Republicans under outsider Trump. In Philadelphia, the DNC stage featured one major politician after another. And ultimately, Clinton’s top rival for the nomination fell in line behind her.
In Cleveland, scores of former and current Republican officials – including the party’s two living ex-presidents and all of its living former presidential nominees but one – skipped the convention. And in a shocker, the GOP runner-up for the nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, refused to endorse Trump in his prime-time speech.
Ironically, it was the Democrats and not the Republicans who put on a slickly produced, star-studded show, despite Trump’s promises of a “showbiz” convention.
But to Americans fearful about safety and an uncertain economic future, the Hollywood lineup probably doesn’t mean much. Two-thirds of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, polls show, and under normal circumstances, that means an election that favors the opposing party. But this is no normal election, and as the race looks now, both parties have a fighting chance come Nov. 8.
For Clinton, “the real challenge is – how do we project that we’re still in the business of change while trying to get a third term,” says veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick of Los Angeles.
To the energized left, Clinton still has a lot to prove. The Democratic Party is in transition, as seen in the new Sanders-infused party platform, which included a move away from free-trade agreements, endorsed a $15 minimum wage, and called for the end of the death penalty.
But on Thursday night, Clinton sought to reach all Americans, reaching back to the nation’s origins for the way forward.
“America is once again at a moment of reckoning,” she said. “Powerful forces are threatening to pull us apart. Bonds of trust and respect are fraying. And just as with our Founders, there are no guarantees. It truly is up to us. We have to decide whether we will all work together so we can all rise together.”