Donald Trump spoke well last week in Cleveland, even if he went on too long. Hillary was less interesting, less pointed. Even when one agrees with her—inevitably often, because everything she says is carefully focus-grouped—she is tiresome to listen to for any length of time. But her acceptance speech did what it had to do, highlighting the advantages she has as leader of a relatively united Democratic Party. Trump had to vanquish or subdue much of the existing Republican Party establishment to secure the nomination. Hillary did not: she is her party’s establishment. Trump had to take rhetorical risks throughout the campaign, and it’s surprising that he got away with them for so long. Hillary did not, and now reaps considerable benefit. No one remembers a single one of her campaign lines, leaving her free to reposition herself any way she wishes.
The Democratic Party is united only in comparison to the GOP, but that is a significant advantage. Hillary was praised extravagantly by a number of fairly popular national figures—President Obama, the First Lady, Bill Clinton, the much loved Joe Biden. Trump, by comparison, despite Gingrich, Christie, and Giuliani, is out there on his own. When he said “I alone can fix it,” it was rhetoric—meaning “I who vanquished an out-of-touch party establishment can keep this insurgent movement going in the White House and give it political form.” But it’s a line vulnerable to the most obvious of Hillary “it takes a village” retorts, and when Hillary dwelt on it, she was effective in making Trump sound egotistical or ignorant about governing.
The Democratic convention could thus be positioned stylistically in the middle: flags, chants of “USA” (wielded continuously against recalcitrant Sanders chanters), generals, continuous praise of John McCain. Trump’s victory has left a broken GOP in its wake, and it will take him (or someone) a while to reconstitute it. Hillary has the backing of the national media more emphatically than any presidential candidate has since LBJ in 1964. She didn’t need to give an interesting speech.
Nevertheless, the speech Hillary did give revealed much about where the race is. She devoted a fair amount of time addressing Trump voters, white working-class folks whose wages and position in the country have been gradually squeezed. She promised good jobs for everyone, to punish Wall Street, to reject bad trade deals, to protect steel and auto workers, to stand up to China. This was essentially an effort to steal the Trump platform and adopt part of Trump’s message, and these words would never have been uttered by Goldman Sachs’ favorite speaker if the GOP had nominated Jeb Bush or if Trump weren’t actually leading in some national polls. This is new territory for Hillary, a concession to Trump she didn’t make to Bernie Sanders. Clinton crony Terry McAuliffe’s blurting out that Hillary didn’t really mean it (her opposition to the TPP in particular) is probably a reliable assertion that she doesn’t. But the fact that she had to proclaim that she heard the complaints of working-class voters and would seek to address them is a kind of tribute to the Trump and Sanders movements.
In Hillary’s world, America’s diversity is its strength, and she probably does believe this. We will not build a wall, she said, but build an economy where “everyone who wants a good paying job” can have one. In years past, a presidential candidate might have said, more or less unconsciously, “every American” instead of “everyone,” but Hillary has already embraced a comprehensive immigration reform with amnesty as its centerpiece, and the Democratic Party is increasingly aligned to that part (now vanquished) of the GOP that prefers relatively open borders. If any kind of future border enforcement is part of that comprehensive package, Hillary certainly didn’t mention it. Left-wing activists now tout a “right to immigrate,” and this may implicitly have become part of the Democratic platform. Probably, somewhere in the back of her mind, Hillary knows that there is a fundamental contradiction between good-paying jobs and open borders, but denying that inescapable economic fact of supply and demand is now part of her party’s message.
In contrast to Trump’s strong law-and-order message, Hillary sought to split the difference between cops and Black Lives Matter. Blacks and Latinos are the victims of “systemic racism.” In a country where affirmative action, or in Nathan Glazer’s acute phrase “affirmative discrimination,” often governs hiring and college admissions, this is one of the more bizarre leftist codewords to adopt. But Hillary is now on record as believing in it. Yet she also spoke words of compassion to the cop who fears for his life, doing his “dangerous and necessary” job. The now widely pervasive anti-cop rhetoric and respect for police officers are fundamentally unreconcilable; Hillary’s acknowledgement of the fears of a cop saying goodbye to his wife and kids before going to work was an attempt to reconcile it, and a political necessity. She must hope dearly that the Black Lives Matter part of the Democratic coalition is not perceived as contributing to more urban violence in the weeks before November.
On foreign policy, she remains a liberal hawk, giving a warning that we are prepared to go war over Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, while giving a one-sentence endorsement of the centerpiece of Obama’s diplomatic legacy, the Iran deal. Again, this is a kind of rhetorical box-checking that doesn’t predict much about her future orientation: clearly either the neocons or Obama supporters will be roundly disappointed in a Hillary foreign policy. We just don’t know which it will be.
Hillary speech did what it had to do—effectively highlighting Trump’s weaknesses, splitting the differences among the diverse and conflicting factions of her coalition, reaching out to Trump’s working-class supporters by adopting much of his (and Sanders’) platform. In reality, of course, a President Hillary would have to choose between these conflicting visions, but a candidate does not. The advantages she possesses as the standard bearer of a relatively united party are enormous and were on full display in Philadelphia; whether they are sufficient to prevail in a time when there is tremendous and justified dismay over America’s direction remains to be seen.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.