The elation came as a surprise. After all, the results were known in advance, the spontaneity scripted in detail, the speech polished by accomplished wordsmiths and the star of evening overly-known and amply-criticized. But when Hillary Clinton took to the stage to claim her title as the first female presidential candidate of a major party, excitement swept the roaring crowd in Brooklyn and magic filled the air. Americans could suddenly see the widening cracks in the glass ceiling, could hear the fluttering wings of history, could feel their own hearts, unexpectedly, miss a beat or two.
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Clinton, who shunned identity politics for most of her career, now embraces her gender’s tag warmly. From a politician steeped in scandal and enveloped by controversy, she transformed, like Cinderella at the ball, into a powerful queen, at least for the night. She became the standard bearer of female equality, a link in a chain that stretches from the first women’s conference at Seneca Falls in 1948, to her mother’s birth on the day women were granted the vote in 1919, to the peak of the present, which has placed Clinton one step away from the White House. Many mothers, including Republicans who may not vote for her, watched Clinton, glanced at their daughters, sighed with satisfaction and wiped away the tears.
Clinton never looked happier. From the crushing defeat to Barack Obama in 2008 she has risen, like a Phoenix, to a momentous victory: this time it is she who heralds the impending revolution. She transcended the accusations and insinuations that have accompanied both her and her husband for decades. Perhaps this is why she didn’t mention him in her speech: this was her party, and hers alone.
It was her rival, Bernie Sanders, who played the party-pooper. Not only did he not give the concession speech warranted by the fact that he has emphatically lost the race, Sanders seemed just as combative as ever. Although he’s lost any theoretical chance of overtaking Clinton, and notwithstanding his emphatic loss in New Jersey, his surprising defeats in New Mexico and South Dakota, his unimportant wins in Montana and South Dakota and his loss in California, Sanders doggedly refuses to give up the fight and recognize reality. A nasty Politico article portrayed him on Tuesday as imperious and suspicious, convinced that the Democratic throne was being stolen from him by underhanded subterfuge. If this is indeed his view, not only will it take a while before Sanders concedes, he might very well be contemplating radical steps, including an independent run that would surely make Donald Trump the next President.
Clinton and her party will give Sanders a few days to get his bearings. He has a crucial role to play in bringing his fans to actively support Clinton, or at least to convince them to vote for her in November. As long as Clinton believes that Sanders is salvageable, Democrats will tiptoe around him and treat him with kids’ gloves. If he remains belligerent, they will take out the brass knuckles instead.
Sanders deserves a lot of credit for invigorating masses of young Americans and bringing them into politics. He set an ambitious social-democratic agenda at the center of America’s public debate. He posed a serious electoral threat on a candidate widely regarded as inevitable. But Tuesday’s voting results once again highlighted the Achilles Heel which doomed Sanders’ prospects from the outset: in a party that is a patchwork of minorities, Sanders failed to expand his reach beyond his white admirers. After living and working for decades in Vermont, Sanders couldn’t master the political language that made Bill and Hillary Clinton into honorary African Americans and potential Hispanics as well. In all of the big, demographically diverse states, with the possible exception of Michigan, Sanders lost by wide margins.
Sanders was probably unhappy with the olive branch held out by Clinton in her speech: in his suspicious mind, it probably seemed like a condescending political ploy. Clinton concentrated all of her fire on Trump, both in her speech in Brooklyn on Monday night and her harsh assault on Trump in San Diego on Thursday. Clinton may not be a great orator, but both speeches were masterful political strokes that may have played a major role in ending the Democratic race. They shunted Sanders aside and portrayed Trump as a clear and present danger. They united Democrats in advance of the grand battle against the GOP frontrunner, with Clinton leading the campaign. Unlike Sanders, Democrats understood that their party’s contest is over.
Trump’s borderline irrational assault on the Federal judge who he claims is biased against him because of his Mexican origin has only bolstered Clinton’s strategy: it created a climate of crisis that united Democrats behind her. When barbarians at the gate are threatening to breach defenses and wreak havoc, the question of whether minimum wage should be $12 or $15 suddenly seems like a luxury. Trump for Clinton is what the “Arab hordes” were for Benjamin Netanyahu in the 2015 Israeli elections: a fear-inducing call to arms that overshadows reservations, settles disputes and propels Democrats to the polling booths.
The contrast between Clinton and Trump was never greater than it was on Tuesday night, and may never be again. Clinton reaped the rewards of her controlled and disciplined campaign at the same time that Trump was trying to contain the damage that his own recklessness had created. Both marked victories, but Clinton did so from a position of strength and Trump with the mark of desperation. She was hugged all around while he resembled the class bully who is forced to apologize, though everyone knows he doesn’t mean it.
Only 24 hours earlier Trump was reported to have reprimanded his campaign staff for not rebuffing criticism of his attack on the “Mexican’ judge. It was this escalation that inflated a political mistake into a potential catastrophe. Prominent Republicans labeled Trump a racist and Senator Mark Kirk retracted his endorsement. If you don’t do something, GOP Chairman Reince Priebus warned Trump, you could lose the entire Republican Party. Trump then delivered his teleprompter-controlled speech in Westchester on Tuesday night, only to march off to a Fox News interview in which he renewed his attacks on the judge. Republicans threw up their arms in frustration while Democrats silently prayed that Trump continues to buck their advice.
Clinton can afford to rest on her laurels for a few days. After months of criticism and abuse, she has earned her week of glory. The former Secretary of State would probably be happy if elections were held today, when she is riding high and Trump is at his lowest, but there is over a month left before the Conventions, three months to the presidential debates, 152 days before Americans actually go to the polls. The election campaign will know many more ups and mainly downs, with some predicting the dirtiest fight ever. Clinton should cherish every single moment of her exhilarating victory party in Brooklyn on Tuesday, because she’ll soon have to return to the slugfest in the mud that awaits her.