But as useful as set pieces like the one on Thursday can be, campaigns, especially this year, need far much more.
“It was a watershed day for her in sense that everything about it worked for her,” said the former Obama campaign mastermind, David Axelrod. “The tone, setting, the substance. Now, you can’t go and throw 12 flags up and do a speech like that everyday. The reason it worked for her, in part, was because, if the presidential campaign is a decathlon, this is her event.”
Axelrod believes that the Clinton jujitsu of last week portended something good for the coming fall debates with Trump, but that her challenge is to “keep the focus on consistently on Trump’s temperament and public character.”
Still, just waving the Benihana knives does not a meal make: In the end, you have to serve the people something.
“We’d be naïve not to think that a lot of this election is going be decided on personality,” said longtime Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen. “It does her no good to be the Other Person in This Race Who is Working on Insults All Day Long. It’s not her. And she’s not as good as it as Trump is! Clinton’s strength is going be connecting with people on things that matter. She’s got to go positive.”
Clinton has thus far offered her positive vision in the form of wonky policy: as Axelrod says, “a cascade of proposals in eye-glazing detail.” Surely, heft has to be some part of the dish on offer, but not too much. “She needs less prose and more poetry,” he said. “She needs to seize on a few [policies] that both set up a contrast and are understood.”
But by far the trickiest territory to negotiate come July is that occupied by Team Sanders: what to do about his legions of enthusiastic supporters, who show no sign of dimming their ardor and have lately suggested they may even protest Clinton at the convention?
Matthew Yglesias makes the case at Vox that Clinton’s speech last week was pitched to a broad audience, 70 percent of the country, rather than a fraction of either party. But it’s possible that the unrelenting focus on Trump was a pitch to Sanders supporters as much as anyone else, the men and women immensely skeptical that Clinton should be the one to close the deal. Axelrod believes that Democrats, rather than Republicans, were the intended audience. “She’s basically raised the stakes,” he said. “And that’s what they need to do—whatever disgruntlement people may feel, they must understand the stakes.”
Whether or not the argument convinced any of them remains to be seen, but Sanders’s response to Clinton’s speech would seem to align with the assessment that Clinton was directing her words to people in her own party. In the moments after the speech, Sanders trained his fire not on Trump, but on Clinton:
It’s clear from moments like these that Sanders hasn’t come around to the cessation of ground—any ground—before July, and that this may end up being Clinton’s essential battle between now and then. Although figuring out a messaging strategy on Trump has been a slog, full of failed hashtags and head-slapping missteps, negotiating a treaty with Sanders is likely to prove far more delicate and therefore prone to missteps. Clinton must be welcoming, but not saccharine, sincere but not overtly solicitous.