Hillary Clinton Got the Big Stuff Right in Her DNC Speech — Not That It Will Win Over Any Conservatives

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Democratic National Convention: Day Four
Clinton in Philly.Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Trump’s Putin comments, and Tim Kaine.

Accepting the Democratic nomination last night, Hillary Clinton noted that, in her life of public service, “the service part has always come easier … than the public part.” Did her speech show you anything about her that you hadn’t been expecting?
A little. This was about as good as it is going to get with a Hillary Clinton speech. There was no expectation that she could match the tough acts she followed — Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, Joe Biden — and she didn’t. But she was confident and at ease, not always a given for her in public appearances, and she did two things very well. First, she rendered the meaning of her role as potentially the first female president in powerful strokes — in terms of the nation’s history, in terms of concrete policies she would advance, and in terms of her own personal history. (Her mother’s hard-knock childhood is not the one you expect to hear from a politician who exudes middle-class suburbia.) Second, she stood up with scorn, wit, and no-holds-barred verbal fisticuffs to Donald Trump. The Trump section of her speech makes you long for the debates, not least because she indicated that one of her implicit goals is to provoke him into losing his cool onstage. Never in the history of presidential politics in the age of television have there been two major-party contenders so antithetical in every way, from their worldviews to their intellects to their psyches to their rhetorical styles to, of course, their genders. What voter would not watch?

The speech also reflected just how much an impact Bernie Sanders has had since his movement caught fire. Clinton, who at her worse equivocates on tough issues or dodges them altogether, took unequivocally progressive stands on causes that Sanders advanced in the primary, and even sounded somewhat convincing railing against the one-percenters in her own donor camp. None of this is likely to win over any conservative voters, but one would hope it helps energize her party’s base. If only she had had an editor! Clinton was right to mock Trump for going on for 70-odd minutes. But then she went on for nearly as long (if not as oddly). Her speech wasn’t quite as amorphous as a State of the Union laundry list, but it was shapeless, overstuffed with policy details at times, and lurched from one topic to the next with no particular dramatic logic. An opportunity was lost when no one stepped in to knit the whole thing together and structure it into a taut, say, 40 minutes.

Then again, perhaps it doesn’t matter. Trump supporters were not going to be persuaded by whatever speech she gave. Maybe those Democrats who are left cold by Clinton — a minority of Democrats, to be sure, but many of them young and every one of them needed — will feel more inclined to rally around her now. Maybe a few moderate Republicans — and there are only a few, most of them employed as talking heads on MSNBC — will decide they’re with her, too. There’s no way of knowing until we start to see some polls after this entire week settles in with the electorate.

Despite some halfhearted backpedaling, Trump’s invitation to Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails and his comments about NATO and Crimea have renewed speculation of his ties to Russian money. How damaging could this be for his campaign?
Listening to Trump invite Vladimir Putin to commit espionage and muscle into an American election, I thought, for a moment anyway, that this might be the final straw. Trump not only turns out to be the Manchurian candidate, but unlike his fictional prototype, he’s not even trying to hide his treasonous plot to aid “our No. 1 geopolitical foe” (as the previous GOP presidential nominee called Russia only four years ago). But what was I thinking? It’s quite possible that this incident won’t damage his campaign whatsoever. His faithful will remain so — it’s just Donald being politically incorrect Donald, they explain — and he may even attract a few more crazies to the fold; after all, he did get a bounce after delivering a rage-filled convention speech widely booed by the civilized world.

That said, a few other points. First, Saturday Night Live owes an apology to Sarah Palin: It turns out that she was not the most ignorant observer of Putin’s Russia to be elevated to a national ticket by the Republican Party in this century. Second, Harry Reid, though a rabid partisan, has a point when he says that he “would suggest to the intelligence agencies” that  “if you’re forced to brief this guy, don’t tell him anything, just fake it, because this man is dangerous.” Trump would blurt out or tweet anything that he felt could advance his own ambitions, the country be damned.

Third, where are GOP leaders as their presidential candidate enters into collusion with Putin? Mike Pence distanced himself a little from Trump’s remarks, but Mitch McConnell expressed only polite disagreement, and Reince Priebus (true to form) remained silent. Paul Ryan released a cowardly statement that trashed Putin but not Trump. You have to wonder if the Speaker of the House, often touted as the heart and soul of his party by conservatives, may go down in history as the foremost fool of our time.

The convention also served as the big introduction of Tim Kaine, whom Clinton chose to the dismay of Sanders supporters. What does he bring to her campaign?
I am firmly of the belief that a veep, no matter who, brings little to any campaign — if you are talking about actual votes, and the final tally of the Electoral College. But the running mates do tell us a lot about the presidential candidates who pick them. JFK (choosing LBJ) was a calculating political strategist. LBJ (choosing Hubert Humphrey) was an autocrat looking for an errand boy. In choosing Kaine, Clinton, following the example of her husband, brands herself a pragmatist: She has a partner who could actually govern if need be, and who shares her centrist liberalism. He boasts a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood and a grade of F from the NRA, but he did until last week support trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (as did Clinton before Sanders forced her to flip). My own opinion of Kaine is high. Anyone who knows Virginia politics knows that he has been as forceful a progressive as imaginable for a politician who entered public life in Richmond in the mid-1990s. To Sanders dead-enders who view him as the Antichrist, I say I’m with Sarah Silverman: “You’re being ridiculous.”

It’s also worth a moment to note a historical footnote to Kaine’s candidacy added by the lineage of his wife, Anne Holton. Holton has had her own distinguished career in public service (most recently as state secretary of education) in Virginia. Her father, Linwood Holton, was Virginia’s Republican governor in the early 1970s. In a famous incident at the time, he responded to court-ordered desegregation not with George Wallace–style defiance but by enrolling his daughters in a historically black public school near the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond. This was a remarkable stand to take in the former capital of the Confederacy — where the previous governor, Mills Godwin, had been a forceful advocate for “massive resistance” to Brown v. Board of Education —  but it was consistent with the Grand Old Party of Lincoln. Nonetheless, Holton was soon marginalized by the Nixon-Agnew administration, which was deaccessioning Lincoln to embrace the Strom Thurmonds and Mills Godwins in pursuit of its southern strategy of exploiting white resentment of the civil-rights movement. That strategy has now reached its apotheosis, and possibly its apocalypse, with Trump. Imagine if the Republican Party had remained true to its Lincoln-esque roots rather than sever them in the Goldwater-Nixon era: It’s not inconceivable that Linwood Holton’s daughter or son-in-law might have landed on its ticket this year.