Hillary Clinton's convention speech was more about demonstrating that she was the person multiple convention speakers said she was -- caring, committed, tenacious, tough, smart (or, in Michael Bloomberg's oddly effective down-shift, "sane, competent") -- than setting off fireworks. She succeeded in that. She spoke deliberately and with conviction about her agenda, her experience, her commitment, and the danger manifest in Trump.
The idea was to have the cumulative effect of many congruent messages culminate in her person. For me, previous testimonies that moved my personal needle converged in one part of her speech.
Through the convention's four days, I had been most impressed by private citizens and local officials who testified to Clinton's caring and persistence. They included 9/11 survivor Loren Manning, who suffered burns across most of her body:
'Hillary Clinton stood with me through that fight. In the darkest of days and the hardest of times, the people who show up mean everything.Also, the "mothers of the movement" who lost their children to gun violence or police misconduct, including Lucia McBath, whose 17 year-old son Jordan was shot by someone angered by his playing loud music at a gas station:
'She walked into my hospital room and took my bandaged hand in her own. Our connection wasn't between a senator and her constituent. Our connection was person to person.
'Hillary showed up. She visited, called, and checked in for years, because she cared. When I needed her, she was there. When our first responders needed her, she was there. Now our country needs her.
Hillary Clinton isn't afraid to say black lives matter. She isn't afraid to sit at a table with grieving mothers and bear the full force of our anguish. She doesn't build walls around her heart. Not only did she listen to our problems, she invited us to become part of the solution...and Bill Clinton, in his concluding claim that Hillary "had done more positive change-making before she was 30 than many public officials do in a lifetime in office." That was lent credibility by his long narrative of Hillary's early years, cast as a hero's journey in which she slew various monsters of inequity.
Now back to how Clinton herself finally fleshed out that claim herself. Hillary has said over and over throughout the campaign that she has been committed to children's welfare throughout her working life, and that her early work for the Children's Defense Fund shows that. Also, that she has the practical know-how and grit to effect change. Maybe I haven't listened to her enough, maybe she often does narrative riffs like the one below...but it was new to me, and what's a convention for? Here's what the convention primed me to really hear:
[My mother] made sure I learned the words of our Methodist faith:This many a year my sense of "caring Clinton" has been balanced by a sense of "Machiavellian Clinton". Enough testimonials in the convention -- including Hillary's own, here -- had enough credibility to me to shift the balance.
“Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.”
I went to work for the Children's Defense Fund, going door-to-door in New Bedford, Massachusetts on behalf of children with disabilities who were denied the chance to go to school.
I remember meeting a young girl in a wheelchair on the small back porch of her house.
She told me how badly she wanted to go to school – it just didn't seem possible.
And I couldn't stop thinking of my mother and what she went through as a child.
It became clear to me that simply caring is not enough.
To drive real progress, you have to change both hearts and laws. You need both understanding and action. So we gathered facts. We built a coalition. And our work helped convince Congress to ensure access to education for all students with disabilities.
It's a big idea, isn't it?
Every kid with a disability has the right to go to school.
But how do you make an idea like that real? You do it step-by-step, year-by-year… sometimes even door-by-door.
And my heart just swelled when I saw Anastasia Somoza on this stage, representing millions of young people who – because of those changes to our laws – are able to get an education.
It's true... I sweat the details of policy – whether we're talking about the exact level of lead in the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, the number of mental health facilities in Iowa, or the cost of your prescription drugs.
Because it's not just a detail if it's your kid - if it's your family.
It's a big deal. And it should be a big deal to your president.
Not that I really needed the shift. With the menace of Trump looming, I could learn by divine revelation that Hillary Clinton was Richard Nixon reincarnate -- and it would still be "Hillary or the abyss." But I hope that this movement in my mind is reflected in that of a significant number of less decided voters.
Two aspects of Clinton's economic message did trouble me a bit. The first is simply to hear her long list of legislative proposals cast as campaign promises -- given the overwhelming likelihood that nearly all of them will be blocked by a Republican majority in at least one house of Congress. I don't know how a politician can signal "this is what I'd like to do, but I probably can't do most of it any time soon." The situation is unusual. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush could run in the likelihood that Democrats would control at least one house and still be reasonably sure that they could pass core proposals, as in fact they did. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama could make their promises while expecting or credibly urging voters to give them congressional majorities.
But now we know, after six years of Republican control of the House under Obama, that they will block close to everything Clinton proposes. Maybe they'll cut a deal on infrastructure investment, or trade some obvious fixes to the ACA for some conservative tweaks, like adding cheap "copper" plans to the exchanges. Also, Clinton has some proposals that can be effected by executive action, such as ramped-up antitrust enforcement, or encouragement for governors to use the ACA's "innovation waivers" to implement plans to make coverage more affordable. But to qualify a huge wish list of progressive projects with a sense of the possible in a politically effective way...I don't know if it's doable, but she's not trying.
My second problem with the speech is a longstanding one: Clinton just does not seem to be able to stitch her long list of economic proposals, from a raised minimum wage to incentives for employee profit sharing to a tax on high frequency trading, into a unified narrative of how she'd restore income growth and prosperity to the working and middle classes. It was good that she directly addressed those who have largely dropped out of the Democratic coalition:
But none of us can be satisfied with the status quo. Not by a long shot.But what followed would not strike working families (I don't think) as a package that would boost opportunity and wages:
We're still facing deep-seated problems that developed long before the recession and have stayed with us through the recovery.
I've gone around our country talking to working families. And I've heard from so many of you who feel like the economy just isn't working.
Some of you are frustrated – even furious.
And you know what??? You're right.
It's not yet working the way it should.
Americans are willing to work – and work hard.
But right now, an awful lot of people feel there is less and less respect for the work they do.
And less respect for them, period.
Democrats are the party of working people.
But we haven't done a good enough job showing that we get what you're going through, and that we're going to do something about it.
So I want to tell you tonight how we will empower Americans to live better lives.
My primary mission as President will be to create more opportunity and more good jobs with rising wages right here in the United States...
From my first day in office to my last!
Especially in places that for too long have been left out and left behind.
From our inner cities to our small towns, from Indian Country to Coal Country. From communities ravaged by addiction to regions hollowed out by plant closures. And here's what I believe.
I believe America thrives when the middle class thrives.Immigration reform and more clean energy investment would boost the economy. But this is a laundry list, and I don't think it's the right laundry list. The effects of these policies are too indirect.
I believe that our economy isn't working the way it should because our democracy isn't working the way it should.
That's why we need to appoint Supreme Court justices who will get money out of politics and expand voting rights, not restrict them. And we'll pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United!
I believe American corporations that have gotten so much from our country should be just as patriotic in return. Many of them are. But too many aren't.
It's wrong to take tax breaks with one hand and give out pink slips with the other.
And I believe Wall Street can never, ever be allowed to wreck Main Street again.
I believe in science. I believe that climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying clean energy jobs.
I believe that when we have millions of hardworking immigrants contributing to our economy, it would be self-defeating and inhumane to kick them out.
Comprehensive immigration reform will grow our economy and keep families together - and it's the right thing to do.
I would emphasize measures that work directly on the balance of power between employers and employees. And as for a unifying principle: Elizabeth Warren tells a great story of how the one percent grabbed all the income growth over the course of a generation. In her telling, there were three pillars of postwar prosperity: unions, effective regulation and fair taxation. Republicans (mostly, with some help from third-way Democrats), tore them all down.
Why not reverse-engineer that story and tell how you'd a) boost worker leverage, 2) increase tax fairness and so investment in infrastructure, energy, education, housing, etc., and 3) regulate to make the financial system safer and make it serve small businesses and working people better?
Clinton has plans addressing all three pillars. But there's no unifying principle. That gap appears to simply be part of who she is, like the vision thing for George H. W. Bush.
But then again, we could do a lot worse than a left-leaning George H. W. Bush. And we will, if Hillary isn't elected.