The Democratic convention, which culminated on Thursday night with Hillary Clinton, was inverted. Usually, supporting actors cover policy specifics and flay the opposing candidate. The nominee comes on at the end and offers a vision.
Hillary Clinton doesn’t do vision well. So, wisely, her campaign turned the paradigm on its head. The emotion, the vision, the rhetorical power came from others: from Barack Obama and Joe Biden and ordinary people like disability rights activist Anastasia Somoza; Khizr Kahn, whose son died in Afghanistan; and the families of slain police officers and victims of police violence. Clinton did what she’s good at: She talked about public policy and she proved that she’s not at all intimidated by Donald Trump.
All week Democrats had been criticizing Trump for saying what he’d do but not how he’d do it. But Hillary, more than any other prime time speaker, provided the necessary contrast. One of her most effective sequences was: “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.”
Presidents don’t have to be inspiring to win elections. Barack Obama is not the only model. Even many of Bill Clinton’s speeches were derided as “laundry lists,” but he destroyed Bob Dole in 1996 by showing, again and again, that Dole’s proposals were fanciful and dangerous while his would help ordinary people in tangible ways. Hillary Clinton needs a massive turnout on the part of people who love Barack Obama and love the prospect of a woman president. But to win, she also needs millions of votes from people who don’t find her “likeable” (a compliment rarely bestowed on powerful women) but grudgingly accept that she use the government competently and effectively while Donald Trump can’t.
Clinton was also smart to go right at Trump. She was smart because it showcased her toughness, a quality that only a fool would deny. When talking about Trump, her tone was contemptuous. She didn’t rant. She didn’t mock. But she came across as a person who, unlike Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, has faced decisions so frightening that they make powerful men quiver. Her line about Jacqueline Kennedy saying that “what worried President Kennedy” during the Cuban missile crisis “was that a war might be started—not by big men with self-control and restraint, but by little men—the ones moved by fear and pride” was masterful. The backdrop was Barack Obama’s decision to authorize the raid on Osama Bin Laden. And the line worked not only because it so perfectly captured Trump but because the convention’s previous speakers had done such a good job arguing that her motivation isn’t ego. It’s care for others.
The speech reminded me of the video with which Hillary Clinton launched her campaign. It starred ordinary people talking in quietly moving ways about the challenges of their lives. They were the stars. Clinton herself appeared only at the end, when she declared, “It’s your time and I hope you’ll join me on this journey.” It’s your time. Not a bad message when you’re running against an authoritarian narcissist of a kind America has never seen.
The convention was the same way. Hillary’s message was: I don’t need to be the center of your world. I’ll do my job, intelligently and doggedly. And I’ll help you be the heroes of your own lives.