On Tuesday, August 18, former president Bill Clinton was placed in the most diminished convention role he has occupied since the 1980s. On Wednesday, his wife probably experienced an even steeper fall from the pinnacle, as the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee spoke during an early evening tribute to the rise of women in American politics (America Rising: From Women’s Suffrage to the Women’s March). She was in pretty good company, preceding Nancy Pelosi on the agenda. But she was hardly being featured like later Wednesday speakers Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama, and the star of the evening, Kamala Harris.
In the past, fallen Democratic presidential nominees have tended to receive more deferential treatment. Some have been active candidates in subsequent cycles, like Adlai Stevenson (the nominee in 1956 and the object of a strong draft effort in 1964) and Hubert Humphrey in 1972. Candidates who came as close to victory as Clinton did have usually been featured speakers next time around, like Al Gore in 2004 and John Kerry in 2008. But as bitter as both the 2000 and 2004 losses were, 2016 will burn in the memory unless and until it is expunged by a 2020 win.
Still, Hillary Clinton rose to a painful occasion. She didn’t make excuses about losing to Donald Trump, but echoed Bernie Sanders and Michelle Obama in suggesting that it was a loss that could have been avoided and must be avoided this time around:
For four years, people have said to me, “I didn’t realize how dangerous he was.” “I wish I could go back and do it over.” “I should have voted.” This can’t be another woulda-coulda-shoulda election. If you’re voting by mail, request your ballot now, and send it back as soon as you can. If you vote in person, do it early. Bring a friend and wear a mask. Become a poll worker.
Most of all, no matter what, vote. And convince everyone you know to vote.
Remember in 2016 when Trump asked: “What do you have to lose?” Well, now we know: our health, our jobs, even our lives. Our leadership in the world and, yes, our post office. As Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders warned us on Monday: If Trump is reelected, it will get even worse. My friends, we need unity now more than ever.
It has to hurt a bit — after all, she trounced Joe Biden in 2008, and now his presidential campaign totally controls this convention and her party. And Biden is benefiting from the horrific experience of four years of Donald Trump as president. Nobody’s going to be overconfident in the Democratic candidate this time. He probably won’t have to worry about minor-party defections or “protest votes” for Trump. And the emergency conditions affecting the country will give Joe Biden maximum flexibility as a candidate to do and say whatever he needs to win and place himself in position to govern. Much that was denied to Hillary Clinton is now at her successor’s beck and call. And she knows and we all know that convention managers didn’t want her in a particularly prominent position, for the simple reason that a party which remains baffled by its loss to Trump four years ago cannot help but wonder if it was the caused by the persona, or the gender, or the record, or the associations, or the campaign strategy of its 2016 nominee. The very number of potential shortcomings laid to Hillary Clinton’s account shows nobody really knows why the catastrophe occurred.
It’s all horribly unfair but unavoidable.
It would have been understandable if Hillary Clinton had chosen to stay far away from this convention with its many reminders of what might have been. But she must know her legacy will never be given its due credit until Trump has been taken down. And so she has done as she was asked, and did it very well.