What Hillary Delivered

While reviews are strongly positive about how Clinton’s speech last night erased the pseudo-drama of Convention strife, some (e. g. Crowley at TNR) are complaining that while she endorsed an Obama presidency she didn’t specifically endorse Obama himself.  Reading the transcript, that’s undeniably true, but the reasons are understandable, and it’s part of the reason that the speech itself was so good.

Everybody’s known for a year that the distance between Clinton and Obama on policy is minimal.  When the early debates tried to highlight the different approaches to, say, health care or energy policy, the points were too fine and nuanced for the press (or voters) to tease apart.  And both campaigns had a strong underlying message of “let’s make history.” Given this parity, character and readiness were pretty much the only things on which that Clinton could attack a surging Obama, and Mark Penn and Lanny Davis spared nothing in doing so.

So the Clinton speech posed a risk, both for Clinton and the Democrats: should she contradict herself and praise Obama’s readiness and capability?  The GOP would be all over that, as they were on Biden.  To her own troops she’d look like a turncoat, and to Obama’s she’d be unconvincing.  There was absolutely no upside in her having an August epiphany that a first-term Senator was in fact ready to answer the big red phone at 3 a.m.

So she stayed entirely away from that discussion, and pounded on one thing: policy. In fact, the strongest line of the speech was “I want you to ask yourselves: Were you in this campaign just for me?”.  In that line she reminded everybody that the Democrats are making this election a referendum on GOP executive policy, both Bush and McCain.  On policy issues, Democrats beat Republicans by a wide margin, hands down, nationwide.  As a personal referendum of Obama versus McCain the margin is much slimmer.

So what Clinton did last night was not only a fitting closure to her candidacy, but a crucial buttress for the Democratic strategy.  She could not go back on her “readiness” slurs without soiling her own following and reputation, but she had to deliver a full-throated endorsement of something that would be good for Obama, good for her, and good for the Democrats.  And the problem of February—virtually indistinguishable policy positions—turned into the solution of August.

And frankly, Clinton is much more comfortable in the policy realm. The faux populism in Pennsylvania, the sideswiping of a dynamic young liberal, the gravitating towards McCain was profoundly uncomfortable for her, and mostly the product of Lanny Davis and Mark Penn.  With the structure being provided by the immensely more disciplined Obama team and Davis and Penn mostly absent, Hillary returned to her pre-February form and showed again why she had a 20-point lead in the polls before the voting started.

I think she might have earned herself a Cabinet post with that speech.  I still think she personally would have made an excellent President and certainly a fine Vice President.  My disappointment with her was that the disarray of her campaign showed poorer management skills than the very disciplined Obama camp, and her rapid descent into sniping and negativity showed more nastiness than skill. Obama won because he waged a better campaign, but that doesn’t diminish Hillary’s essential astuteness as a Government official, and I’d love to see her as, say, Attorney General.

The wild card in all of this is Bill.  He speaks tonight, and if he follows her lead and sticks to policy everything will be fine. If he reverses himself and openly admires Obama, all the better; he can get away with it as he has no political future to salvage, and the press is used to his 180° turns.  If he’s tepid on Obama, lets resentment or bitterness show through, or carries the convention off on some Clintonian tangent, there may be trouble, and the biggest victim may again be Hillary.

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