She didn’t match the lyrical rhetoric of Barack Obama, couldn’t replicate the magic made by Michelle, was far from emulating the working-man’s roar of Joe Biden and was no equal to the political drama created by Michael Bloomberg. But Hillary Clinton isn’t competing against them; she’s running against Donald Trump.
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And by any objective measure – which may not matter much anymore – Clinton’s acceptance speech presented an experienced, knowledgeable and disciplined presidential candidate who can still muster the fire in her belly, the complete opposite, almost, of the confrontational, shoot-from-the-hip arrogance that characterizes her Republican opponent. Whether this great gap will make any difference to the American public remains to be seen.
Clinton’s historic speech as the first ever female presidential candidate of a major party capped off four days of splendid surprises for the Democrats. They had feared a dull and divisive convention but were given one of the most spectacular political productions of the modern era.
The WikiLeaks-made email scandal that had engulfed the Democratic National Committee just hours before the convention got underway faded into the background once Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s head was put on Bernie Sanders' platter. The expected rebellion of his disappointed fans dissipated into futile protests by isolated pockets of resistance, once it emerged that he had reached a backroom deal with Clinton.
The content that was supposed to be uninspiring compared to the tumult that had been expected at the GOP convention in Cleveland yielded four straight nights of high drama and soaring oratory. And the unprecedented nomination of a woman as candidate for the highest office in the land, an achievement that had supposedly lost its luster, came back to excite the Democratic delegates in Philadelphia at just the right time, when the whole world was watching.
And even though Clinton didn’t surpass anyone’s expectations – after her decades in public life, it’s unrealistic to expect major changes – she gave her audience at the Wells Fargo Center everything they could have wished for. She was inspiring at times, juxtaposing her vision of a good and just America with Trump’s dystopian portrait of a country going down the drain and a military that is already a “disaster.”
She laid out the traditionally Democratic social and economic values, turned even more progressive as a concession to Sanders, but did so convincingly, as someone who had dedicated much of her life to their realization. And she submitted a comprehensive if summary outlook on national security that offered no innovations but nonetheless reflected continuity and resolve, in contrast to the haphazard isolationism that is being promoted by Trump.
The longer she spoke, the more confident she became, displaying sparks of anger and emotion so often lacking from her previous public appearances. And she unveiled her secret weapon against Trump, condescension, which must have upset him to no end, judging by the rapid-fire tweets that he sent out immediately after her speech was over.
Clinton portrayed Trump as a little man who promises much but delivers nothing, a politician suffering from over-appreciation of his own qualities and blindness toward everyone else’s. America is “we, not “I”, she said, an assertion that won’t be universally accepted among those who view rugged individualism as the essence of Americanism. “You think you know more than the generals about ISIS?” she asked and then, with a theatrical turn of her head and a disdainful look in her eyes she gave her killer line “No, Donald, you don’t.”
As corroborating witness to her low opinion of Trump, Clinton enlisted retired four-star general John Allen, who angrily lambasted Trump from the podium in tones which acquaintances claim belied his normally subdued demeanor. Clinton, he said, was totally competent to serve as commander in chief, savaging Trump’s statements on torture and military alliances without mentioning his name.
His short speech, with army veterans supporting him from behind, was accompanied by repeated cries of "U.S.A., U.S.A." from the audience, which started as an effort to drown out chants of “No More War” emanating from the last Sanders holdouts but grew in volume to mark the new uber-patriotic fervor which is now just as Democratic as it was once Republican.
In this context it was only natural that the final evening of the convention was marked by bereaved mothers of soldiers and policemen killed in action. The most dramatic moment of the event was supplied by Khizr Khan, whose son was killed in Iraq as one of 11 Muslim soldiers who have been killed in action since 9/11. Khan’s lament of Trump’s hostility toward Muslims was punctuated by a dramatic gesture that is sure to go viral: he took out a copy of the U.S. Constitution and asked Trump whether he had read it. The audience embraced his grief and went wild at his gesture.
Now that the Democrats have seized love of the military from the GOP along with a foreign posture that is interventionist in comparison to Trump’s isolationism and willingness to abandon NATO, the upcoming confrontation between Clinton and Trump seems less like a classic competition between two ideologies that have done battle for decades. Rather, it's more of a new campaign that pits the establishment of both parties against a renegade part of America that views Trump as its instrument for dramatic change. In an era when the very words establishment and politics are reviled as never before, this positioning of the two candidates doesn’t necessarily work in Clinton’s favor.
On Thursday night, however, she was buoyed by the excitement of the crowd, albeit more from its female than its male component. Clinton’s impending role in making history was in the cards as a consequence of her “inevitable” candidacy for such a long time that her pioneering role in American history – in fact, if you’ll excuse me, in human history – never elicited the kind of raw emotions that accompanied Barack Obama’s selection as the first black candidate of a major party eight years ago.
Nonetheless, for a few brief hours, as the star-studded convention drew to a close, the magic seemed to return. After a long and hard struggle, Clinton had finally climbed another peak, mastered another mountain, with only one left for her to conquer, the highest of them all. Helped by Chelsea’s loving portrayal of her as mother and grandmother and her own personal recollections, Clinton was suddenly human. Basking in the heartfelt cheers of thousands of Democrats, she was suddenly loved as well, perhaps for just one night.
Trump is universally regarded as the shocking surprise of this election season, but if you would have asked anyone whether Clinton would return from her crushing defeat to Obama eight years ago, the answer would have been an emphatic no.
Yet here she is, once again, in what has now been incorporated as her main selling point in the final stretch of the campaign. She is a fighter who never gives up. She falls to the floor once and twice but always picks herself up, tries again and again, until her determination and tenacity enable her to achieve her goals.