This story was updated on Wednesday, June 8 at 7:52 a.m.
A triumphant Hillary Clinton laid claim to the Democratic nomination Tuesday night, making a pitch for unity and celebrating her historic status as the first woman to be a major party’s presidential candidate.
“We are all standing under a glass ceiling right now—but don’t worry, we’re not smashing this one,” she said in Brooklyn. “Thanks to you we’ve reached a milestone .... Tonight’s victory is not about one person. It belongs to generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible.”
The glass ceiling quip was in part a callback to the speech she gave exactly eight years ago Tuesday, where she conceded the Democratic nomination to Senator Barack Obama, saying, “Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling, thanks to you it's got about 18 million cracks in it.”
In her victory speech, Clinton reached out to Bernie Sanders’s supporters. She courted them with policy—her own emphases on inequality, affordable college education, and fighting free-trade deals are effectively borrowed from him—and with self-deprecating humor. “I know it never feels good to put your heart into a cause or candidate you believe in and to come up short. I know that feeling well,” she said with a wry smile. But most of all, she relied on praise for Sanders.
“He has spent his long career in public service fighting for progressive causes and principles, and he’s excited millions of voters, especially young people,” Clinton said. “Let there be no mistake. Senator Sanders, his campaign, and the vigorous debate we’ve had about how to raise incomes, reduce inequality, and increase upward mobility, have been very good for the Democratic Party and for America.”
She had no such kind words for Donald Trump. She called the presumptive Republican nominee a “bully” who is “temperamentally unfit to be president and commander in chief,” and in a powerful new line aimed at the women and minorities Trump has alienated, she said, “When he says, ‘Let’s make America great again,’ that is code for ‘Let’s take American backwards.’”
While looking forward to the general election, Clinton looked back to her own history and to the nation’s. “It really does take a village to raise a child,” she said, a reference to her 1996 book. A highlight reel-cum-campaign ad ahead of her speech celebrated women’s progress in American politics, and she cited the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and noted the remarkable fact that her own mother was born on June 4, 1919, the day the 19th Amendment to the Constitution passed Congress. But most of all she, made a plea to bring together her own party, independents who backed Sanders, and Republicans disgusted with Trump. “This election is different,” she said. “It really is about who we are as a nation. It’s about millions of American coming together to say we are better than this. We won’t let this happen in America.” The speech was at times more workmanlike than lyrical, but it got her message across.
In a statement around midnight, President Obama cautiously weighed in: “The President congratulated Secretary Clinton for securing the delegates necessary to clinch the Democratic Nomination for President. Her historic campaign inspired millions and is an extension of her lifelong fight for middle-class families and children.” Obama did not endorse Clinton, but he is expected to do so—and to hit the trail on her behalf—soon. He will also meet with Sanders at the White House on Thursday, apparently at Sanders’s request, in what could represent movement toward party reconciliation.
Clinton was able to declare victory when the results came in from New Jersey. But as the evening wore on, it became clear she’d had a good night, winning in California, New Mexico, and South Dakota. Sanders won in North Dakota and Montana. Trump, now unopposed, swept the slate of Republican contests.
The historic moment in Brooklyn capped one of the strangest days in the 2016 presidential campaign thus far—perhaps one of the strangest in modern political history. Late Monday night, the Associated Press calculated that Clinton had accrued the support, between pledged delegates and superdelegates, to clinch the Democratic nomination, a threshold she hadn’t been expected to pass until Tuesday evening. The declaration, soon replicated by other outlets, infuriated Sanders and his supporters, who contended that the call was premature. Some suggested a nefarious conspiracy, or pointed to highly unlikely paths to victory for Sanders. The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, afraid that the AP call might depress her supporters’ turnout in California and hand that state to Sanders, hedged on declaring victory.
If the Democratic action was strange, things were even weirder on the GOP side. Republican condemnations of Trump’s claim that Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is overseeing litigation over so-called Trump University, was biased because of his Mexican heritage formed a steady drumbeat. House Speaker Paul Ryan, who endorsed Trump just last week, called his comments “racist” but declined to withdraw his support. Illinois Senator Mark Kirk actually rescinded his endorsement. Meanwhile, Trump surrogates were on television calling his critics—including Ryan—the real racists. A candidate who was supposed to be uniting his party had just spent a week sowing discord within it.
Trump finally issued a non-apology in the afternoon, and he delivered a restrained speech Tuesday night at one of his golf clubs in Westchester County, New York. He alternated between stiltedly reading remarks from a teleprompter and his customary ad libs. Trump seemed to have finally taken to heart pleas to lay off Curiel and attempt to address issues. “I understand the responsibility of carrying the mantle” of the Republican Party, he said. “I will never, ever let you down. I will make you proud of your party and our movement
Speaking in a voice that didn’t seem quite his, Trump delivered a few standard politician platitudes (“This election isn’t about Republican or Democrat. It’s about who runs this country: the special interests or the people”); some unusual humility (“This is not a testament to me, but a testament to all the people who believe real change—not Obama change, but real change—is possible”); and a laundry list of signature policies, including opposing illegal immigration and free trade and a more restrained foreign policy. He centered all of these ideas on the theme of “America First,” a phrase with a fraught history. Mirroring Clinton, he called for Sanders supporters to join his campaign.
Notably, Trump finally replied to Hillary Clinton’s scorching attack on him last week, which had been left unrebutted as Trump wallowed in the Trump U. fiasco. He promised to deliver a longer speech, perhaps on Monday, assailing Hillary and Bill Clinton. But Trump took no questions, and made no comments on the remarks about Curiel. It’s clearly progress for the Republican nominee to get through a high-profile moment without making a racist remark, but it’s not the kind of progress Republicans ever expected they would welcome so eagerly.
How many times has a Tuesday night seen declarations that the Democratic race was “effectively” over, only to see Sanders keep fighting and Clinton fail to seal the deal? In what should be the final such moment, Sanders had a disappointing night, adding insult to the injury of Clinton’s clinch. He was on course to fall well short of Clinton in California, a state where he’d been aggressively campaigning for two weeks and spent millions of dollars.
Sanders spoke after 1:45 a.m. Eastern time, delivering a defiant speech in Santa Monica in which he continued to fight on through the June 14 primary in the District of Columbia and then go on to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Delivering something close to his standard stump speech, he addressed a crowd in Santa Monica that appeared to have lost no enthusiasm, despite the disappointing results in the Golden State and a speech that began nearly an hour after its scheduled start.
“If this campaign has proven anything it has proven that millions of Americans who love this country are prepared to stand up and fight to make this country a much better place,” he said. Sanders also said, “We will not allow Donald Trump to become president of the United States.”
After the rally, Sanders was scheduled to take a long flight back to Burlington to assess the campaign. The enthusiastic crowd in Santa Monica, and Sanders’s bold words, aside, his campaign is preparing to lay off a large number of staffers, according to The New York Times. Senator Jeff Merkley, a major Sanders backer, said Tuesday that unity would begin “as soon as the polls close.” Some observers noted (perhaps hopefully) that Clinton didn’t drop out until four days after losing her final primary in 2008. The question for Sanders is not if his campaign will end, but when he decides to end it. On that day, the Vermont senator will not have the Democratic nomination, but will have a major claim on the direction of the Democratic Party in the 2016 election.
With the field now set, the two presumptive nominees have their paths laid out to November. Clinton has consolidated her party’s core, and her task now is to win over reluctant Sanders backers and convince independents that Trump is dangerous. Trump, who was supposed to already be unifying his party, will first have to reassure Republican officials and voters horrified by the events of the last week. The next six months will be a popularity contest between two unusually unpopular candidates. —David A. Graham