DNC 2016: Michelle Obama’s Speech of a Lifetime Turns Convention Around for Hillary Clinton
The first night of the Democratic National Convention belonged to the first lady, who delivered a speech that just might save the convention for Hillary Clinton.
PHILADELPHIA — So here we are; it’s Tuesday morning. Where are we with the Berniequake?
Monday at 7 p.m., there was a lot for Hillary Clinton to worry about. By the time night one was gaveled down four-plus hours later, things had changed. And one person changed those things more than anybody else.
Michelle Obama gave what almost surely had to be the greatest convention speech ever by a first lady. It was certainly better than any of the speeches I recall Hillary giving as first lady. Michelle laid the wood to Trump, took a couple of early and kind of light (but unmissable) pops at Bernie Sanders, and made about as strong a case for Clinton as anyone could possibly make.
Her smackdown of Trump was cleverly disguised as advice the Obamas have given their daughters about how to deal with surly classmates: “When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, when they go low, we go high.” Her gentle little stab at Sanders-Weaver-driven magical thinking was disguised as praise of Hillary from 2008: “And when she didn’t win the nomination eight years ago, she didn’t get angry or disillusioned.” And while her praise of Clinton contained the usual odes to her passion for children, Michelle also zeroed in on what is the nominee’s most impressive quality: “There were plenty of moments when Hillary could have decided that this work was too hard, that the price of public service was too high, that she was tired of being picked apart for how she looks or how she talks or even how she laughs. But here’s the thing. What I admire most about Hillary is that she never buckles under pressure. She never takes the easy way out. And Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life.”
And then there was that line about waking up every morning “in a house built by slaves.” A stunning sentence in a convention speech. It may seem too negative a thing to say about America at first blush, but it was actually praise for the country and the millions who’ve work to change the country for the better.
Elizabeth Warren was a little meh Monday night. She didn’t put it to Trump with quite the gusto and zest that she has before. But her expressions of support for Clinton were more powerful. Her job through Nov. 8, though, is to trash-talk Trump, and she has to sharpen her attack.
And then came Bernie. Yes, he did his job. He mentioned Hillary 14 times, and 13 of them were favorable. He’s going to get a lot of praise, but more than he has earned. All those Sanders delegates who insist they won’t vote for Hillary… I don’t know if they’re 10 or 20 or 30 percent of his delegates, and I don’t know if they represent a similar percentage of Sanders voters at large but the fact remains that he led them down the garden path throughout the spring and into the summer.
There are Sanders delegates who came to Philadelphia still thinking that Sanders had a chance at wresting the nomination away from Clinton, and yeah, that’s partly their fault for being ignorant about how politics actually work, but it’s partly the fault of Sanders and Jeff Weaver, who spent weeks saying they were taking their fight to the convention long after anyone who wasn’t over the rainbow knew it was impossible.
Still, it was a surprisingly good night for the mainstream sell-out caucus. Even Sarah Silverman joined! So what comes next?
Well, on Tuesday night, we’ll see Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. That’s about as Ruth and Gehrig a lineup as you get in contemporary politics. By 11, Americans should have heard both a better testimonial for Hillary than they’ve ever heard, and a sharper critique of Trump than they’ve ever heard. And to me, the division of labor ought to be counterintuitive. Bill should lay waste to Trump, because excessive testimonials from a husband aren’t going to persuade middle-of-the-road voters. And I can totally picture Bill just laying it on Donald with relish. And getting down in Trump’s revolting gutter is beneath a sitting president, so it’s better for Obama to spend most of his time praising Hillary. That pair should change the dynamic considerably.
There’s still the matter of the Bernie delegates. They were shouting Monday night, even if it was just a small percentage of them. On Tuesday night comes the call of the roll of the states. Bernie said Monday night for the first time what we all expected, that he will insist on a full calling of the roll. Why?
He lost. He is going to lose. All it is is one more opportunity for more of his unruly people to make mischief. And he made his point Monday night and then some.
If he’s endorsed Clinton and mentioned her positively 13 times in his prime-time speech, why not just say OK, she should be the nominee by acclamation? It’s not in his nature.
Even so, the conventional wisdom will be that Sanders did what he had to do. And while it wasn’t Warren’s best night, her rhetoric was very team-y. But the night belonged to Michelle. She pointed the way forward that might—might—raise the Democrats out of the WikiLeaks muck. That will ultimately depend on Tim Kaine and most of all on Clinton herself. It’s not a successful convention yet. But if against the odds it ends up being that, it will be because Michelle changed the story.