Column: After soaring convention speeches, can Clinton connect with ordinary people?
The third night of the 2016 Democratic convention scaled several major peaks: President Obama gave, perhaps, the best-written oration of his career. Vice President Joe Biden gave, perhaps, his last national convention address, and his prospective successor, Tim Kaine, gave his first.
But when it was all over, and Obama was joined on stage by the woman who wants to succeed him, you could feel the love welling up from the delegates and you could sense the doubt hanging over them — an invisible cloud casting a psychological shadow.
Yes, the crowd had been wowed by Michelle Obama and Elizabeth Warren and the “Comeback Kid” himself, Bill Clinton.
But would Hillary Clinton herself be able to seal the deal on the last night?
Never known as a big-venue speechmaker, Clinton will face a make-or-break moment with multiple pitfalls, varying objectives and a variety of critical audiences.
For starters, she needs to overcome her reputation for being overly intense and humorless in her public presentations.
Beyond that, she needs to reassure those who doubt her integrity after many months of pounding from conservatives and media organizations on Benghazi and on her private email server.
She needs to reassure those who have been told that a woman (or at least this particular woman) is not equal to the task of national security in a time of foreign crisis and domestic threats.
And she needs to convince members of her own party that she shares their sensibilities as expressed in the party platform, widely regarded as the “most progressive in party history.”
And as she speaks, she will likely face a crossfire from the still-restive ranks of die-hard Bernie Sanders delegates.
Although they have not been as constantly disruptive as they were on Monday afternoon, pockets of unity-resistant Sandersistas have distracted from the convention program here and there. They chanted “stop” when a former admiral spoke, and they kept up a steady stream of noise when Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense and CIA director, was on stage. At another point they chanted “no more war” until the rest of the convention drowned them out with “USA.”
This tended to undercut the message the convention organizers had tried to convey on Wednesday night — a message of Democrats being sure-handed and resolute on national security.
Panetta, in particular, recast his remarks after hearing Republican nominee Donald Trump on Wednesday call for Russian hackers to look for old State Department emails Clinton was said to have deleted. Trump suggested this would be a field day for the media.
Panetta wanted to point out this amounted to urging “an adversary” to go fishing in important pools of potentially classified information. (Trump later backed off the call, saying he was just being sarcastic.)
The Sanders contingent includes many peace activists and people for whom Obama and Clinton and Panetta are guilty of continuing George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” The fact that they wound down the war in Iraq gradually and actually extended the war in Afghanistan makes them unacceptable.
These protesters are akin to the anti-war activists of the Vietnam era who cared more about defeating the hawks in the Democratic Party than about defeating the Republican Party, which ultimately proved at least equally hawkish, if not more so.
These holdouts remained unmoved by Clinton winning the roll call vote on Tuesday by nearly a thousand votes, or by her receiving Sanders’ endorsement. Instead, they see the entire system as rigged and regard the leaked batch of DNC emails as proof the entire process was corrupt, even the primaries and caucuses, which were actually run by the individual states or state parties. They are not dissuaded by the fact that Sanders did win nearly two-dozen states.
So Clinton will need a strategy for dealing with some kind of pushback from this contingent when she rises to accept the party nomination Thursday night.
But there could be an even larger issue looming over her campaign and its communication with voters. Hillary Clinton needs to connect with ordinary people, especially Anglo white people over 30 who do not have a college education. Polls show this group is trending to Trump by roughly 2 to 1.
As powerful as Obama was on Wednesday, he probably did not break through to this group, which did not feel his magnetism in 2008 or 2012 and provided much of the voting muscle for his midterm humiliations in 2010 and 2014.
Hillary Clinton generally ran ahead of Obama with these voters in 2008, powering her primary wins then in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and elsewhere. But when the opponent is a Republican, and specifically Trump, she does not match up well.
Among the speakers on Wednesday night, Biden’s voice was the one most attuned to the ears of this voting group. The son of Irish Catholic working people in Scranton, Pa., Biden moved to neighboring Delaware and began his political career there. His speeches still appeal to regular folks quite directly, often with terms such as “malarkey” and a tendency to unbridled enthusiasm. In this, Biden has offered balance for Obama’s often cerebral and even lecture-like speeches.
But others on the podium also suggested models for breaking through to those who do not watch C-SPAN or spend time with political newsprint. Kaine stressed his working-class roots (his father had a metalworking business) and flashed a style of enthusiasm and outreach reminiscent of Biden’s own.
Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire several times over before he served three terms as mayor of New York, found plain terms to convey his feelings in his brief remarks. While others this week have droned on in critique of Trump’s business persona, Bloomberg was brief: “I’m a New Yorker, and I know a con when I see one.”
Bloomberg also cut through some fog when he called Clinton the “sane and competent” candidate for president this fall. No one missed the contrast implied.
Another example of connecting in a few words was Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland and a presidential candidate for several months last winter. O’Malley motored through a brief address to the delegates in his shirtsleeves with necktie loosened and collar open.
O’Malley hit his job-oriented issues fast and hard, keeping his voice high but under control, smiling a lot and using his hands. He left the stage to a sudden and surprise standing ovation. Asked later if his casual look had been a last-minute inspiration, O’Malley compared it to campaigning tieless in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But of all the scores of speakers who have taken the podium this week, the one who might have been the best template for communicating with ordinary voters was Joe Sweeney, who served 21 years as a New York policeman and detective.
Sweeney rushed to the World Trade Center site on Sept. 11, 2001, digging for survivors. Later, he and other rescuers learned the air they breathed that day had been toxic. On Tuesday night, Sweeney told the story of Clinton, then a senator, turning the Environmental Protection Agency around on that issue and getting help for people who got sick.
“A lot of people moved on,” Sweeney testified. “They thought everything was fine. But Hillary Clinton kept in touch and kept at it. Ten years later, Hillary Clinton was still our toughest champion, making sure we still got our health benefits.”
“Still Our Toughest Champion” might make a kind of motto, if a person were running for something. It is exactly the kind of brief, sharp and intelligible message too often lacking in politics, or at least in presidential politics on the Democratic side.
It may not be possible for every candidate to be pithy, pointed and able to draw blood with the use of the language. But someone who wants to be president should explore and understand how language is used, and how it will be used against them.
A historic example will be on stage in Philadelphia on Thursday night in the 10 o’clock hour.