The weakest part of the 2016 Democratic National Convention was the speech delivered by the party's nominee for president. Four nights of impressive stagecraft and at times moving rhetoric preceded Hillary Clinton's paint-by-numbers, plodding address. It lacked the passion of Michelle Obama's or Bernie Sanders's speeches, had nothing of Joe Biden's instinctual feel for middle-class language and anxieties, did not achieve the valedictory heights of Barack Obama's appearance. Clinton did not speak from the political center, as Michael Bloomberg did, nor has she experienced loss like that of the Khan family, whose son was killed in battle in Iraq. Like many of the speakers at the convention, Clinton attacked Donald Trump. But her criticisms of the Republican nominee were not novel, or funny, or memorable.
He never appeared on stage, but Trump had a starring role at the DNC. Not only because the election has become a referendum on his personality, his issues, his methods, his supporters, his connections, but also because fear of Trump unifies a divided coalition. The 2016 primary exposed a fissure in the Democratic party between liberalism and radicalism. It was clear from the boos and tears of the convention that the chasm has not been bridged. As long as the central question in American politics is the future of Donald Trump, Democrats will be able to minimize their differences in pursuit of a common goal. But what happens after the Trump question is decided?
Trump also supplies Hillary Clinton with something she desperately needs: an argument for her campaign. She has tried various slogans, settling most recently on "Stronger Together." It's a platitude—and not an especially exciting one. The Democrats recycled lines from conventions past, including si se puede, which was chanted during vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine's goofy and disappointing remarks. Is Clinton running for President Obama's third term, or as a "change maker"? Is she the candidate of Bernie Sanders or of General John Allen?
And what makes Clinton a change maker, anyway? Her health care plan was a failure. She may have supported the children's health insurance bill, but it was Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch who moved it through Congress. I am happy she worked with Chuck Schumer to appropriate federal money for New York after 9/11, but is that really such an accomplishment? The country was ready to do almost anything that was asked of it after the terrorist attacks. Clinton supported interventions in Iraq and Libya that, to put it mildly, did not go as planned. She lost the nomination to Obama in 2008 and would have lost it again this year to either Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren. She lied repeatedly to the public about the contents, security, and reason for her private email server. Even her supporters concede that she has a penchant for secrecy and a suspicion of outsiders that could hamper her ability to govern. The Hillary mystique is her inflated and undeserved reputation for competence. She is her own worst enemy. Ironically, the same could be said of her opponent in this odd and dispiriting presidential election.