In retrospect, Michael Bloomberg’s speech on Wednesday may have been the most important of the Democratic National Convention. By explicitly framing the contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as a clash between sanity and insanity, between competence and incompetence, the former New York City mayor provided a framework not only for Clinton’s acceptance speech but for the rest of the campaign.
“Let’s elect a sane, competent person with international experience,” the Republican-turned-independent said in his plodding manner. “The bottom line is: Trump is a risky, reckless, and radical choice, and we can’t afford to make that choice. Now, I know Hillary Clinton is not flawless. No candidate is. But she is the right choice and the responsible choice in this election.”
Segue to Clinton’s address on Thursday night. She didn’t deliver the best speech of the week (Michelle Obama did). Nor does she speak with the sort of ease that comes naturally to President Obama or Vice President Biden. But she projected, well, competence and sanity. And it also contained a zinger that I suspect she’ll be repeating often in the weeks and months ahead: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” Sad! As conservative speechwriter and self-described Clinton-loather Barton Swaim wrote in the Washington Post, “The line’s content is both true and terrifying.”
During a week in which Trump bizarrely invited Russian intelligence to expose Clinton’s private emails, raising still more questions about his and his top aides’ ties to Vladimir Putin, it became more clear than ever that—as Ezra Klein of Vox put it—this is a contest not just between a Democrat and a Republican but between “normal” and “abnormal.” Klein writes:
Clinton, say what you will about her, is a normal political candidate who will operate within the normal boundaries of American democracy. Donald Trump is an abnormal political candidate; we have no idea which democratic boundaries he would respect, which conspiracy theories he would believe, which political enemies he would punish, which treaties he would honor.
In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that of the four best-known candidates running for president—Clinton, Trump, Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, and the Green Party’s Jill Stein—only Clinton and Johnson possess the experience and temperament to be president. (Johnson, in case you are unaware, is a former Republican governor of New Mexico.) Neither Stein nor Johnson is going to win. Trump might.
Bernie Sanders’s decision to come fully on board (despite the continued resistance of a few of his followers) capped a remarkable year in which he succeeded in pulling both Clinton and the party in a more progressive direction. There is a danger, though, that Clinton will now give in to the temptation created by Trump’s irresponsible behavior by moving toward the middle, or even to the center-right. The problem with the Clintons has always been that when forced to choose between principle and a political opportunity, they always seize the opportunity.
Thus we saw a display on Thursday of unbounded militarism led by Marine General John Allen, who came across like he was barking out the opening monologue in Patton. It wasn’t all bad. The diversity of the troops behind him was a sight to behold, and he rebuked Trump by saying, “I also know that our armed forces will not become an instrument of torture, and they will not be engaged in murder, or carry out other illegal activities.” But his promise to bring “fear” to terrorists, punctuated by chants of “USA! USA!,” served as an unsettling reminder that Clinton is considerably more hawkish than Obama—especially when it suits her political needs.
Writing in the Nation, the venerable left-liberal outlet, D.D. Guttenplan said that the display of hyperpatriotism “filled me with dismay.” I also thought it contrasted badly with what may have been the most moving moment of the convention—a speech by Khizr Khan, a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan, whose son was killed while serving in Iraq.
As Uri Friedman put it in the Atlantic, “I wish he and his wife didn’t have to stand there as the parents of a 27-year-old Army captain who was killed by suicide bombers while serving in the Iraq War. And I wish Khizr Khan hadn’t felt the need to declare his patriotism and loyalty to the United States of America. Those truths should have been self-evident.” As if to make Friedman’s point, Trump on Thursday night was speaking at a rally in Iowa where he doubled down on his support for waterboarding and for keeping Muslim refugees out of the United States.
There’s no question that Clinton and the Democrats had a good week. Their TV ratings were higher than was the case with the Republican convention. The CNN/OCR instant poll showed that 71 percent of viewers had a “very positive” reaction to Clinton’s speech, and another 15 percent were “somewhat positive”—far better than was the case with Trump, although his post-speech numbers were also more positive than negative.
“Hillary Clinton is about steadiness, doggedness, doing your homework,” wrote Josh Marshall at the liberal site Talking Points Memo. “From a jaundiced view that can mean uninspiring, cautious, unimaginative. But in addition to the speech and the entirety of the convention driving home a powerful narrative attack against Trump's unfitness for office, the upshot of the convention was to brand Hillary as the anti-Trump, which makes sense because that is basically what she is.”
Taking a more ominous view was New York Times columnist David Brooks, an anti-Trump conservative. “The Democrats may have just dominated a game we are no longer playing,” he said, adding: “It could be that in this moment of fear, cynicism, anxiety and extreme pessimism, many voters may have decided that civility is a surrender to a rigged system, that optimism is the opiate of the idiots and that humility and gentleness are simply surrendering to the butchers of ISIS. If that’s the case then the throes of a completely new birth are upon us and Trump is a man from the future.”
My guess is that Clinton will get a decent bump out of the convention and widen her precarious lead a bit. Whether that will hold is anyone’s guess. During every campaign we hear a lot of rhetoric that this is the most important election of our lifetime. In 2016, it might actually be true.