Hillary Clinton strode into history books Thursday night with a call for Americans to rally behind her. “Join us” was a refrain as she moved toward the end of her speech — and toward what promises to be a divisive campaign to become the nation’s first female President.
“I know that at a time when so much seems to be pulling us apart, it can be hard to imagine how we'll ever pull together,” she said. “But I'm here to tell you tonight, progress is possible.”
The former Secretary of State became the Democratic nominee with enormous advantages over her rival Donald Trump — a massive campaign apparatus, deep pockets and an electoral map that favors Democrats. But on the biggest night of her campaign, with the nation's television screens tuned in, she walked on stage dogged by doubts and headwinds, with more than half the country saying they had concerns about her trustworthiness.
Though her campaign theme was "stronger together," the convention hall was not united, with shouted protests from a few progressive dissidents disrupting her speech at points. Protesters held signs praising her rival Bernie Sanders, and a handful even pushed the Green Party candidate. One sign read simply "Keep Your Promises," a reflection of the distrust that has dogged her through the campaign.
She tried to take all of these concerns straight on, praising Sanders at the start of her address, embracing the party platform she had been pressured by progressives to adopt, and admitting her shortfalls at connecting in the past to voters. “Now, sometimes the people at this podium are new to the national stage. As you know, I’m not one of those people,” Clinton said. “The truth is, through all these years of public service, the service part has always come easier to me than the public part. I get it, that some people just don't know what to make of me.”
She did little to help answer that one. Instead, she offered a broad vision of helping all Americans with her specific ideas of how to do it. “It’s true. I sweat the details of policy,” she said. Moments later, she contrasted that with Trump, whose positions are often hard to pin down. “No wonder he doesn't like talking about his plans,” she said, before dryly adding, “You might have noticed, I love talking about mine.”
She quoted Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Jackie Kennedy, borrowed a lyric from the Broadway hit Hamilton and parroted Ronald Reagan. But for much of the speech, she sought to define herself not with her own story, but in opposition to her opponent. Of Trump, she said he had shifted his party a long way from Reagan’s slogan. "He wants to divide us — from the rest of the world, and from each other," she said. “He’s taken the Republican Party a long way from Morning in America to Midnight in America."
“Don’t believe anyone who says ‘I alone can fix it,’” Clinton warned. “Those were Donald Trump’s words in Cleveland. They should set off alarm bells.”
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For the better part of four nights, the speakers had taken their turns hammering Trump as a self-serving huckster, an alleged billionaire who is running for President only to make his brand bigger, and an enemy to women, immigrants and workers. They also tried to humanize a sometimes distant public figure with anecdotes about her personal life and her behind-the-scenes political work.
Throughout the Democratic convention, friends and allies offered anecdotes aimed at making Clinton seem more likable. Bill Clinton told the story of how they first met from afar in the Yale Law School library. Chelsea Clinton talked about her mother reading her Goodnight Moon and taking her to Dinosaur National Monument. Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told the story of how Clinton and President Obama crashed a private meeting of other world leaders. Senator Claire McCaskill said Clinton phoned her after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
But the biggest lift was Clinton’s own speech. She kept working at it all the way into Thursday. After making a surprise appearance with Obama late Wednesday, she went back to her hotel to keep working on the latest draft of the address. Aides were frustrated with her insistence on specifics over rhetoric, details over drama, but it was typical Clinton. “Why keep it simple like, ‘If you see something, say something’ when ‘If you see something suspicious, please alert the proper authorities’ is much better?” one aide joked.
She seemed to yield to advisers, and the speech had some memorable one-liners, and some rhetoric that can be repurposed for the speeches she gives every day. As usual, it was grounded in facts and specifics.
Convention speeches are the rare opportunity for campaigns to have the eyes of a nation on the candidates, traditionally uninterrupted and on their own terms. Unlike the three upcoming debates, there was no sparring partner on Thursday. Unlike TV interviews and press conferences, there was no reporter raising uncomfortable topics. It was simply Clinton speaking to her supporters in the overcrowded hall and millions more watching at home that she hoped to persuade.
She walked a fine line, trying to maintain an optimistic tone and arguing that, contra Trump, America is already great, while also acknowledging the frustrations that fueled Sanders and Trump in the primaries.
“Some of you are frustrated. Even furious. You’re right. It’s not yet working the way it should,” she said.
Clinton’s convention closed with the traditional balloons and a song blaring that they were stronger together and united. Her challenge, over the next 102 days, will be to hammer home those themes that her strategists amplified over the last four days: that Democrats are the party of inclusion and the middle class, that government programs can help lift Americans, that Clinton is the best prepared presidential nominee in a generation. Starting with a weekend bus tour through Pennsylvania and Ohio, Clinton and running mate Tim Kaine will try to paper over the party divisions that left many delegates in the hall sour on the Establishment.
To help build a unified party, Clinton mostly focused on the alternative. “Imagine, if you will, image him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis,” Clinton said. Then she added a line that was the most-discussed moment on Twitter of the night: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”
The next step will be to convince voters that they can trust her instead.