It took Hillary Rodham Clinton a long time to get here. It took effort and work and a very high pain tolerance. It took her being willing to be thoroughly humiliated in the public square, and to crawl over the emotional equivalent of a pit of broken glass. It took her putting on that face and shaking so many hands and going to a lot of places no one would want to go. But now she has the prize – the ability to be one of only two people with a legitimate shot at becoming Commander in Chief and leader of the free world, of going back to the room where it happened and making her mark on the United States as its first female president. It has been a long time for this little girl from Illinois, and those eyes have seen too much along the way.
So why does her nomination not feel more satisfying? The attitude in 2008 among those who supported Barack Obama was one marked just as much by an ideological affinity to his views as a feeling that they were about proving something to themselves, to their fellow citizens, and to the world about the United States. His supporters frequently expressed a belief that Obama’s election would be a mark of racial healing, a sign of how far we have come as a country, and spoke in hopeful terms about what his election would do to relationships between black and white America.
Perhaps it is the lesson we took from that experience – seeing those hopes dashed, the further rise of identity politics and tribalism, and the perception that race relations are worse than they have been in more than two decades – that has led fewer Hillary supporters to express similar views about her rise and relationships between the sexes. Or perhaps it is that after presenting people like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan as prosecuting a “war on women”, there is no vocabulary for her supporters that will go far enough in identifying how Donald Trump actually treats and views women. If you cry wolf about extremism long enough, no one believes you when the real extremist comes along.
As for her cheerleaders, the frequency with which Hillary Clinton’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination is described as “historic” or “remarkable” by members of the media takes on a desperate tone after a while. Last night, as Clinton gave her final address, credentialed members of the media were actively participating with signs and flags in the celebration of her nomination – even while sitting in the press section. Journalists wore t-shirts expressing their satisfaction with her nomination as a win for feminism. For the most extreme fans, any criticism levelled at Hillary for her obvious defects as a candidate derives from sexism, in the same way any criticism of Barack Obama derives from racism. The Daily Beast this morning pronounces criticism of Hillary’s voice as “shrill” or “loud”, from such arch-Republican commentators as Tom Brokaw, as “baffling”. Yes, baffling indeed.
The scene in Philadelphia in the first two days of the DNC was chaotic and uneven. The next two days were marked by excellent speeches from Joe Biden and Barack Obama and others as well. If the first two nights were about party unity and the culture war, last night, the speeches seemed particularly geared toward the working class voters who once cast their votes for Hillary in the Rust Belt, but have since left the party to support Donald Trump. Twitter joked repeatedly that this was the 2004 Republican convention as done by the Democrats. The best speech was given by the father of a fallen Muslim soldier who had fought for the country – he held his pocket Constitution in the air, offering to loan it to Trump so he could read it. This inspired Ann Coulter to post an angry misspelled tweet.
The Democratic Convention was largely a success. In every way that matters for TV, it was better than what Republicans offered. What prevented it from being a home run was the candidate herself. Where Barack Obama was able to unite his coalition of support with a message of hope, Hillary Clinton must unite hers with a message of fear, just as Donald Trump is doing now – fear of what the other will do with the reins of power. Her party is still divided by real differences between the progressive base and the Clinton brand of corporate politics. As a speechmaker, she is still limited, and her ability to win over voters who are nervous about what Trump will do is a real question for the general. David Axelrod says it wasn’t a great speech, but it was “effective.” We will see when the numbers come in.
So here we are, with two historically unpopular candidates, both known quantities, both desirous of power more for what it means to them than what it will mean for the nation. The grind of the next three months will determine who will lead us into a time of faction and war. It would feel better if we liked or trusted either of them at all.