Dispatch August 2008

Hillary Goes Out With a Whimper

"Clinton didn't seem angry or betrayed or entitled or any of the things that critics have attributed to her—she seemed merely unenthused, and so did the audience."
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When she first campaigned for a New York Senate seat, Hillary Clinton earned the nickname "The Laundry Lady." Last night's speech was a reminder why. Clinton didn't come close to injecting the shot of energy that the Democratic convention desperately needs, but neither did she do anything to damage Obama's campaign. Instead, she wrapped up her historic candidacy with a whimper—an understated, buzzword-laden speech that held about as much passion as a Wednesday night city council meeting.

Also see:

Hillary's Speech (August 26, 2008)
"She was at her best... The delivery was phenomenal: passionate, forceful, and not the least bit false." By Clive Crook

The Frontrunner's Fall(September 2008)
Hillary Clinton's campaign was undone by a clash of personalities more toxic than anyone imagined. A look at the backstabbing and conflicting strategies that produced an epic meltdown. By Joshua Green

The Clinton Memos (September 2008)
Read the full collection of the campaign's strategy memos and emails.

Characteristically, Clinton seemed to want to do several things at once, and as a result did none of them especially well. She made the necessary appeal for unity; she took some shots at John McCain; and she thanked—rather perfunctorily and without much feeling, it seemed to me—the many supporters of hers who have caused so much hand-wringing and consternation. But it was hard to come away thinking that anything significant had changed.

Clinton didn't need to match the intensity of Dennis Kucinich, who, earlier in the evening, hopped and screamed like a meth-addled Smurf. And she rose above the rote fare of the state legislator-types who fill the endless daytime hours. But true sentiment toward Obama was hard to detect. Clinton does magnanimity like Robin Williams does understatement: it doesn't come naturally.

For a moment, it seemed tonight might be an exception. Until Clinton's appearance, the audience in the Pepsi Center seemed as though it had been gassed. (Note to Democratic speechwriters: regardless of the polls, lines like "Let's go declare our energy independence" don't make people want to stand up and shout.) The bio film that introduced her pretended to be a mawkish tear-jerker, and then cleverly broke into a Van Halen riff. The crowd was fired up. But the excitement faded quickly. Clinton didn't seem angry or betrayed or entitled or any of the things that critics have attributed to her—she seemed merely unenthused, and so did the audience, his crowd and hers. Two minutes after she left the stage someone could have shouted across the arena and been heard on the other side.

After all the breathless speculation, where does this leave Obama? My guess is: slightly better off.

A major reason why Clinton lost the nomination was her inability to fully commit to a strategy. Once she conceded, this stopped being her problem and became his: for all the talk of unity and coming together, Clinton seemed serially unwilling to commit to the idea of Obama as Democratic nominee. Thus, each outlay of dutiful public "support" was eventually marred by some tactless remark or hint of encouragement to an outraged bitter-ender that, if only they kept faith, there might still be a way. There wasn't. And each episode brought the controversy roaring back, further imperiling the prospects of the actual nominee.

This always struck me as the behavior of someone aware of her duty yet allergic to the idea of turning away even a shred of support. Clinton obviously still wants to be president. Tonight, she swallowed the entitlement that is intrinsic to both Clintons and said the right things. She made the intellectual case for Obama. She seemed finally to accept that, at least for now, her own political future is inextricably bound to his. Most important to the Obama campaign, she explained in somewhat clinical terms why she supports him, and indicated, fairly explicitly and before an audience of diehard supporters, that everyone else must now do so too. She checked that box.

"None of us can sit on the sidelines," Clinton said, but did not implore. "No way. No how. No McCain." Had the message come any later, it wouldn't have counted. Had it come with real feeling, it would have counted for much more.

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WATCH A VIDEO of Clinton's speech
Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.
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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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