PHILADELPHA — Michelle Obama had me jumping out of my chair on Monday night, but I didn’t do any jumping Tuesday night.
Don’t overreact. It was no disaster. The general theme, or one general theme—the optimism about America—was strong. It contrasted sharply with Donald Trump’s America presented at the Republican convention last week and apparently designed by Tim Burton. It was controversial for the Democrats to hand their convention stage to the mothers of black people who died at the hands of police, especially after the cop worshipfest last week in Cleveland.
But the mothers were great, especially Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland. There wasn’t a word of bitterness in the speeches by the three black mothers who spoke. (It’s worth noting that Michael Brown’s mother, Lezley McSpadden, didn’t get the mic; her presence was the most controversial, given that the Justice Department found that he attacked Darren Wilson before the officer killed him.) Reed-Veal opened by praising and thanking God for making the night possible, thus immediately taking the occasion out of the realm of the profane and onto a higher plane.
They made a striking contrast to Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who vein-popped his way through an appalling speech last week in Cleveland. Clarke, who is black, actively sought to divide America from his very first sentence; there can be utterly no debate about that assertion. These mothers sought to heal. From now to November, anyone who tries to cast aspersions on these poor mothers deserves national contempt.
From kind of the other end, 9/11 attacks survivor Lauren Manning was terrifically moving. She testified to Clinton’s—dare I use this word?—character. Manning was burned on more than 82 percent of her body.
“For years, she visited, she called, and continued to check in, because Hillary cares,” Manning said. “When I needed her, she cared... Not for the cameras. Not because anyone was watching. But because that’s who she is. Kind. Caring. Loyal. This is the Hillary Clinton I want you to know.” While it was obviously scripted, sure, it wasn’t invented.
That was the second theme of the night: Hillary’s accomplishments, the Hillary you don’t know.
And that’s where Bill came in.
On Twitter, and in emails with friends, opinion was divided on his speech. Some thought it was brilliant, a powerful case for a woman who’s trying to break the ultimate glass ceiling. The “made up Hillary vs. the real Hillary” was good. The mere mention of the moment when “Hillary’s water broke” the night Chelsea was born was a certain first in presidential politics and may have humanized her to the broader audience more than anything else said Monday night.
In that sense Bill’s was a typical spouse’s speech, little different in spirit from the kind of speech Ann Romney delivered on behalf of Mitt or Theresa Heinz delivered for John Kerry. It was interesting to see a man give that kind of speech for once.
But he’s not Ann Romney or Theresa Heinz. He’s a former president. He’s not just a spouse. If I’d been running the convention, I’d have asked him to do something different. I’d have asked him to explain to all those middle-management people out there why they should vote Democratic. He alone among all living Democrats has the cred to make that argument to those people. They’re not especially inclined to vote for Hillary, but if they do on Nov. 8, it will be a wipeout.
Bill has—had—unique power to move them away from Trump. The short movie that ran before he spoke did a lot more than the speech, in my view, to persuade those voters. Maybe the polls will show that what he did worked, but I can say there weren’t any lines that made me jump out of my seat. I did that 10 times for Michelle—and I did it 20 times in 2012 when Bill spoke for President Obama in Charlotte. I insist that was the greatest convention speech of the television era: far better than Mario Cuomo in 1984 or Teddy Kennedy in 1980. That was Bill Clinton at his insane, tape-measure best. That wasn’t him on Tuesday night.
This convention has been good so far. The obsession with the dividied Berniac storyline has faded. (And good for Bernie to move to make Hillary the nominee by acclimation—class.) But there is more work that needs to be done.
The Democrats have not hit Trump hard enough: on his embarrassing man-childness, on his crypto-fascism, on his national security disastrousness. Trump needs to be hammered, mauled on these things. This convention hasn’t done it yet. Joe Biden will probably do it Wednesday night and Biden’s heir apparent, Tim Kaine. That’s the veep’s job during an election.
I guess Obama will do that, too. I’d have thought, as I wrote Monday, that a sitting president shouldn’t go all nuclear on the other party’s nominee, but maybe he has to this time. Obama will have to over the course of the fall, because it’s not clear that Bill can do it anymore. I think the best way for Bill to help his wife is not to tell stories from their Yale days, but to get Trump in his sights and fire.