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Hillary Clinton just gave one of the most important speeches of her career

Fair or unfair, Democrats' chief criticism of Hillary Clinton has been that she doesn't truly share their most cherished values, particularly when it comes to addressing inequality. They also worry that she's not ready for prime time — that she's too stilted, too programmed, too cold on the stump.

On Wednesday she answered both points.

Her first major policy address of the 2016 campaign was Clinton at her finest, showcasing both strong policy chops and a deep sensitivity to Americans who are heartbroken over the deaths of young black men at the hands of police officers.

Speaking at Columbia University, Clinton used the violence in Baltimore as a window into a larger argument — one she said she would revisit on the campaign trail — about addressing poverty and injustice. It's a theme that dovetails smoothly with her ideas for empowering women and families through increased wages, pay equity, and the expansion of child care benefits.

In that way, she wove two criminal justice reform proposals into a far broader and deeper campaign narrative. The Democratic Party's core policy agenda in a post-Obama — and post-Obamacare — era is resolving the ills of poverty, inequality, substance abuse, and the broken criminal justice and mental health systems. It is about the idea, as she put it, that "no one is disposable. Every life matters."

For many in the Democratic Party, particularly in minority communities, that is the great unfinished business of the Obama presidency, the promise that must still be fulfilled.

Clinton delivered the speech in a way that showed she's ready for the trail. She connected cleanly with the message she's been trying to send about the difference between her 2008 campaign and this one: this time, it's about everyone else. And the way she did it pointed to her age and experience as a strength rather than a weakness.

"It is a time for wisdom," she said.

The policy vision

Clinton started with an elegantly simple premise to address the spreading conflict between police departments and communities of color: provide body cameras to cops and put a bookend on the "incarceration generation," Clinton said.

She freely moved between prose and statistic: America makes up 5 percent of the world's population but has 25 percent of its prisoners, and a third of all black men in the country face the prospect of going to prison in their lifetimes, she said.

"From Ferguson to Staten Island to Baltimore, the patterns have become unmistakable and undeniable," Clinton said, name-checking unarmed black men killed by police in a softer tone, somewhere between pained and plaintive.

"Let’s take on the broader inequities in our society," she said. "You can’t separate out the unrest we see in the streets from the cycles of poverty and despair that hollow out those neighborhoods."

Then she moved outside of America's urban centers, mentioning recent trips to Iowa and New Hampshire as she made the case that many of the problems she aims to solve are not bound by the city limits.

The faults of the criminal justice system include the incarceration of the mentally ill, the number of children who have parents in prison, and the inability of America to solve drug problems not just in cities but outside urban areas, Clinton said.

In particular, she lamented the failure to stand up community mental health centers to complement the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill.

"We got half of that equation but not the other half," Clinton said. "Our prisons and our jails are now our mental health institutions."

But she also praised police offers doing their duty with honor, calling for mutual respect.

"Everyone in every community benefits when there is respect for the law and when everyone in every community is respected by the law," she said.

Her policy prescriptions represented a full break with her husband's 1994 crime bill, which pushed for more arrests, more incarcerations, more prison cells, and longer jail sentences. Bill Clinton, too, has come to believe that one of the signature legislative accomplishments of his first term has contributed to a justice system that is out of whack.

The filling of American prisons has become so powerful for voters that both Democrats and Republicans are trying to tackle it in Washington. That bipartisanship is the ultimate proof that the issue of mass incarceration has reached critical mass. And some in the GOP are also backing the use of police body cameras.

New style

Clinton, who spoke with a much softer tone than usual, likened herself to so many Americans who have watched, powerless, as the crisis of inequality in the justice system has played out on television for months.

"Not only as a mother and a grandmother but as a citizen, a human being, my heart breaks for these young men and their families," she said. "We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America. There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts."

As she moved back into data, Clinton pointed to life-expectancy figures in a piece in USA Today by Jennifer Mendelsohn:

At a conference in 2013 at Johns Hopkins University, Vice Provost Jonathan Bagger pointed out that "only 6 miles separate the Baltimore neighborhoods of Roland Park and Hollins Market, but there is a 20-year difference in the average life expectancy." A 20-year difference? Why aren't we asking more regularly if they're OK?

"We have learned in the last few years that life expectancy, which is a measure of the quality of life, manifests the inequality that we see in so many other parts of our society," she said noting that white women without a high school education and black men and black women in some parts of the country are facing diminishing life expectancies.

"It tells us more than I think we can bear about what we are up against," she said.

The speech was hardly a panacea, and Clinton conceded that she didn't have an answer for how to deal with low-level criminal offenders in a way that gets them registered with the system but does not put them on track for recidivism. While she spoke of the children deprived of their parents and jailed in adult facilities, she took criticism from juvenile justice reform advocates.

"She left out the 60,000 children who will go to bed tonight in youth prisons and out-of-home placements in the justice system," said Liz Ryan, CEO of a Youth First, which seeks to end the incarceration of minors. "Kids should be a high priority as we attempt to end the age of mass incarceration."

Otherwise, it was the forgotten of whom Clinton spoke.

"Too many of our fellow citizens are still left out," she said, striking a familiar Democratic chord.

Indeed, even in calling for a more civil political debate and praising rival Rand Paul and other Republicans for seeking an end to mandatory minimum sentences and other criminal justice reforms, she couldn't resist a subtle jab — referring to their interest in "certain reforms" rather than a full revamp of the system.

If this is the Hillary Clinton that hits the campaign trail for the next 18 months, she'll be a far more formidable candidate than the halting speaker who struggled to articulate a raison d'être in 2008.