Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday night confidently accepted the nomination of the Democratic Party to be president of the United States. This was history.
Our money-laden, poll-driven politics is a tawdry business. The Clintons are burdened by a lot of history on the national stage. The packaging of the moment was over the top. But all that aside, the moment is worth celebrating. And while we’re not supposed to comment, Hillary Clinton looked dazzling as she stepped up to that moment.
Clinton’s address came at the end of a long, successful Democratic convention. Democrats drew bigger audiences, offered more star power, featured better speeches, more moving moments, and presented more of America than Republicans. Clinton’s address put Donald Trump’s rambling remarks at the Republican convention to shame. The contrast surely will give Clinton a bounce coming out of the convention, and put her ahead as the campaign goes — yes – to its real start in September when most Americans begin to pay attention.
Here are some take-aways from last night:
1. Clinton’s Populist Embrace
Clinton clearly sought to embrace the populist temper of our time, and made it a centerpiece of her long address.
She began with a tribute to Bernie Sanders, her chief competitor for the Democratic nomination:
“I want to thank Bernie Sanders. Bernie, your campaign inspired millions of Americans, particularly the young people who threw their hearts and souls into our primary. You’ve put economic and social justice issues front and center where they belong. And to all of your supporters here and around the country, I want you to know I’ve heard you. Your cause is our cause.”
She acknowledged that this economy is not working for working people. She credited President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden for saving the economy from the free fall they inherited, but stated: “[N]one of us can be satisfied with the status quo, not by a long shot. We’re still facing deep-seated problems that developed long before the recession and have stayed with us through the recovery.” Many “feel like the economy sure isn’t working for them. Some of you are frustrated, even furious. And you know what? You’re right.”
After reminding Democrats that “we are the party of working people,” she pledged to pick Supreme Court justices who would overturn Citizen’s United, ensure that Wall Street would never “wreck Main Street again,” address climate change, take on corporations that pocket tax breaks and ship jobs abroad.
Then she offered a list of populist intentions “to make this economy work for everyone, not just those at the top”:
● Encourage corporations to share profits, not pad CEO bonuses.
● Turn the minimum wage into a living wage.
● Guarantee every American the right to affordable health care.
● “Say no to unfair trade deals…stand up to China..support our “home grown manufacturers.”
● Expand Social Security and protect women’s right to “make her own health care decisions.”
● Work with Sanders to “make college tuition free for the middle class and debt free-for-all”
● Launch in her first 100 days the largest public investment program since World War II to rebuild our infrastructure and move to clean energy.
● And pay for all of this by making “Wall Street, corporations and the superrich pay their fair share of taxes.”
Expanded shared security, lifting the floor under workers, public investment to create jobs, a new global trade strategy, progressive taxes, a crackdown on corporate and Wall Street excesses – Clinton chose to present herself as a populist reformer, not simply as Obama’s third term.
2. Stuff Happens
Many will doubt the sincerity of those promises. There was no explicit pledge to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, no explicit pledge to break up the big banks or pass a modern Glass-Steagall Act. No mention of the platform’s endorsement of a $15 minimum wage and a union.
Perhaps even more telling is that Clinton offered no explanation about how we got into the straits we are in. It just happened to us: “Now America is once again at a moment of reckoning. Powerful forces are threatening to pull us apart. Bonds of trust and respect are fraying.”
The economy isn’t working for working people because our democracy isn’t working, she argued. But there was no indication that this deck was stacked by those who made out like bandits.
Republicans blame big government and call for tax cuts and deregulation. Trump blames stupid negotiators, incompetent and corrupted politicians and calls for cleaning house with a strong man. Democrats have to provide people with an explanation of how we got into this hole in order to be convincing about how we can get out of it.
3. Change in the Backrooms
How will all this get done? Clinton addressed the question directly: “Well, look at my record. I’ve worked across the aisle to pass laws and treaties and to launch new programs that help millions of people. And if you give me the chance, that’s exactly what I’ll do as president.”
No need for a movement, much less a political revolution. No need for a sweeping mandate or even a Democratic House and Senate. Clinton rightly savaged Trump for claiming that only he could fix things, but then suggested that her ability to cut deals can get things done. The modesty of the means contrasts with the boldness of the promises.
4. Prose and Poetry
Politicians we are told campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Clinton delivered her speech with confidence and force last night, but for Clinton poetry is not a strength. As she admitted when it comes to public service, “service” comes easier to her than the “public” parts.
That contributes to her struggles as a candidate, but it will also weaken her as a president. The great power of the president comes from the bully pulpit, from the ability to galvanize Americans, to help them understand where we are and where we must go.
Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would like this race to be a referendum on the other. Both are remarkably unpopular. Neither is trusted. Clinton calls on voters to reject the “midnight” offered by Trump; Trump calls on them to reject the status quo corruption offered by Clinton.
But this election will be a choice. Democrats paint that choice in stark terms: optimism against pessimism, unity against division, love against hate, experience against ignorance, expertise against buffoonery. Last night, Clinton added a reform agenda for working people against Trump’s incoherence.
For progressives – and for many Americans – Trump represents a clear and present danger. But our corrupted politics, and the devastating failures of the establishment call into question any appeal to experience.
Some Sanders delegates demonstrated during Clinton’s address; some left the hall when she accepted the nomination. Many objected to the bellicose rhetoric of the generals who preceded her.
Hillary Clinton won’t win their hearts. And she will have a hard time removing the concerns about her trustworthiness. But the choice between the racism and nativism of Donald Trump, a man clearly unfit to be president, and Hillary Clinton could not be more clear. And Bernie Sanders has it right: The first task of his continuing political revolution is to make certain that Trump loses, and loses badly, so that populism is not discredited by the billionaire con man’s politics of hate.