It’s official: Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee for president in 2016, the first woman to win the nomination of either major party in all of American history. Even though the outcome was foreordained, it was still an emotional moment.
It a culmination of the work of campaigns from Victoria Woodhull in 1872 to Belva Ann Lockwood in 1884 to Margaret Chase Smith in 1952 to Shirley Chisholm and Patsy Mink in 1972 to Pat Schroeder in 1988 to Elizabeth Dole in 2000 to Clinton herself in 2008. Tuesday featured the actual moment Clinton made history, a moment when even the fiercest Clinton critics in the room stayed quiet out of respect.
Once the actual business of the convention was done, the night featured a repeat of Monday’s mixture of congressional leaders and celebrities (Lena Dunham! America Ferrera! Elizabeth Banks!) leading up to the big event: Bill Clinton’s speech, as aspiring first gentleman.
Here’s who left the night better off, and who took a hit.
Winner: Bill Clinton
On Tuesday night, the Democratic nominee’s spouse gave a typical first lady address: telling the story of the couple’s relationship, how they raised their child, and the nominee’s professional development, all the while taking pains to emphasize the candidate’s superlative character qualities and to recount anecdotes showing integrity, determination, and grace.
Okay, I exaggerate a bit. Bill Clinton is not a typical presidential spouse. He is necessarily going to have a sui generis role in his wife’s White House as, I believe, the only former president to return full time to a successor’s administration.
He is also going to have a sui generis relationship with voters. While some 2016 voters are too young to remember the Clinton administration, born after the Lewinsky scandal broke, many voted in 1992 and 1996 and remember his presidency as the best economic period of their lifetimes, overshadowed as it was at times by scandal. He is still one of the most famous, respected figures in American politics.
All of which makes it even more notable that Clinton declined to focus on himself or his presidency at all. When his own public service came up, it was only as context for Hillary’s accomplishments as first lady of Arkansas and the United States. Despite Bill’s reputation as an egotist who won’t shut up about himself, he decidedly shut up about himself while refusing to shut up about how beautiful, brave, tough, and admirable his wife is. It sounded more like Michelle Obama’s 2008 and 2012 convention speeches than, say, Bill Clinton’s celebrated 2012 convention speech. That was very much intentional.
It got off to a slow start, adding in quotidian, seemingly insignificant details — Hillary’s stint sliming fish in Alaska, the square footage of the couple’s first house, watching Police Academy movies with Chelsea — that combined for an effect not of tedium but of familiarity, of humanization. Clinton embraced the traditional first spouse’s duty of making voters see the candidate as a person with emotions and thoughts and quirks, a person they can empathize with and relate to. And because Bill Clinton is one of the best rhetoricians alive today, he absolutely killed it.
A long speech, though its purpose is clear: he's painting an extended portrait of a human being, who's often talked about as if she isn't.— Steve Inskeep (@NPRinskeep) July 27, 2016
Clinton did have an additional challenge most spouses don’t face. Not to put too fine a point on it, he cheated on Hillary in front of the entire country. Not once, but twice. And the crowd knew that, and many, even fans of the Clintons, developed an understanding of their marriage as a tactical agreement rather than a bond of love as a result. That can have the effect of making the Clintons seem venal, cold-blooded, and calculating.
Those close to the Clintons have always denied this, insisting that like many couples who have endured and survived infidelity, they remain very much in love. And Bill, while never explicitly referencing the affair, structured the speech to make it very clear how real their bond remains. It read like the vows one would give at a marriage recommitment ceremony, pulling out the moments in their time together where he was most in awe of her, when they sacrificed for each other, when they supported each other.
And throughout, he tied it to policy. This wasn’t forced, because policy is literally Bill and Hillary Clinton’s life together. It is what he lives for. It’s what she lives for. It’s what bonded them, what is at the center of their relationship and their lives’ work — not in a cynical way, but the way that music united Jacqueline du Pré and Daniel Barenboim and chemistry united Marie and Pierre Curie, two equal talents pursuing a mutual passion in tandem.
So the praise Bill offered that rang truest was for Clinton’s commitment to the messy process of governance, to the long, slow boring of hard boards. “Speeches like this are fun,” he told the crowd. “Actually doing the work is hard.”
Bill Clinton will, if Hillary is elected, be given the task of defining what the position of first lady looks like when inhabited by a man, a man with his own public reputation and task. It’s a totally unprecedented position to be in, and this speech was his first opportunity to make a statement about what role he hopes to play in Hillary’s administration. And he made that statement, very clearly: This is Hillary’s administration, not mine, and I trust her completely — as should you, voter.
Watch: Bill Clinton makes the case for Hillary
Winner: Black Lives Matter
Democrats have been winning the black vote since at least the FDR administration, but the party’s focus on and commitment to black equality during that period has waxed and waned. There were moments where it made good on its promises to black voters: when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, when Harry Truman desegregated the military.
But there were plenty of moments of betrayal: Social Security’s initial exclusion of agricultural workers to get the votes of white supremacist Southern Democrats; FDR’s failure to support anti-lynching legislation; JFK refusing to introduce civil rights legislation and telling his aide and civil rights activist Harris Wofford at the inception of the Freedom Rides, ”Can't you get your goddamned friends off those buses?”
Nothing in the record of either Clinton is anywhere near that heinous. But Bill’s career, in particular, has been littered with moments where he either distanced himself from the cause of racial justice or actively hampered it.
Bill Clinton hosts campaign event on Stone Mountain, the birthplace of the KKK, with Black inmates in background. pic.twitter.com/kyQkDt5zhM— sean. (@SeanMcElwee) April 1, 2016
In his 1992 race, he campaigned in front of black prisoners at the Stone Mountain memorial to the Confederacy in Georgia, where the modern Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1915. He ordered the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a black man so mentally disabled he said he wanted to save the pecan pie from his last meal "for later." He attacked the rapper Sister Souljah for her anti-white comments, equating them with the rhetoric of David Duke. He pushed through a flawed, punitive crime bill and signed a welfare reform law that denied a cash safety net for disproportionately black poor families.
In some ways, this was a necessary part of Clinton’s political strategy. The promise of Bill Clinton was that this guy, unlike the Yankees who lost the 1984 and 1988 elections for Democrats, could win over working-class whites, and, by combining their votes with black votes, flip Appalachian and Southern states that were otherwise unwinnable. The plan worked: He eked out a one-point victory with white working-class voters, and Missouri, Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, West Virginia, and his home state of Arkansas all went Democratic in 1992.
But it’s not exactly a mystery why the white working class abandoned Democrats to begin with. Political scientist Larry Bartels has found that from 1952 to 2004, support for Democrats declined by nearly 20 percentage points among white voters without college degrees in the South — and barely at all among white voters without college degrees outside the South. The unmistakable lesson is that the group’s abandonment of Democrats has something to do with white Southerners’ anger over civil rights. Winning back those white Southerners meant tacking right on race. It meant critiquing Sister Souljah. Bill Clinton seemed to think it took killing Ricky Ray Rector.
So it was remarkable to see at the nominating convention of Clinton’s wife, on the night when he spoke, that explicit calls for black equality and against the kind of punitive law and order policies that Clinton once championed took center stage. Former Attorney General Eric Holder assured the crowd that Clinton “will end this policy of overincarceration,” and reminded them that she “fought as a senator against sentencing disparities and racial profiling.”
And, most powerfully, the Mothers of the Movement — the mothers of black victims of state violence Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Dontre Hamilton, Hadiya Pendelton, and Sandra Bland — were given a prominent platform. “I am here with Hillary Clinton tonight, because she is a leader and a mother who will say our children's names,” Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, said. “She knows that when a young black life is cut short, it's not just a loss. It’s a personal loss. It’s a national loss.” Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother, added, “In memory of our children, we are imploring you, all of you, to vote this Election Day.”
It’s easy to view this as unprincipled electioneering. Black Lives Matter is popular with the Democratic base, and with black and Latino voters making up an ever-increasing part of the overall electorate it makes sense for Democrats to take up racial justice causes for cynical reasons if nothing else.
But whatever the reason, the fact that the Clintons went, in 24 years, from campaigning for cops to get tougher on black men at the birthplace of the Klan to campaigning alongside victims of tough-on-crime policies for a criminal justice system that attacks and imprisons fewer black men is a remarkable turnaround. And the mere fact that Black Lives Matter got a national audience of millions to hear their message, in their own terms, is huge.
The pivot the Clintons, and the Democrats, have made here is a major victory for Black Lives Matter as a movement and for racial justice movements more broadly, and a sign that their organizing can exert meaningful pressure on the highest levels of government.
Winner: Gender equality
Setting aside your personal feelings about Clinton and the primary against Bernie Sanders, it's worth meditating for a second on what a historic event Clinton’s nomination is. No major party has ever nominated a woman for president before. The best previous general election performance for a woman was the Green Party's Jill Stein in 2012, who finished in fourth place with 469,627 votes and 0.36 percent. Before that, there was psychotherapist Lenora Fulani, who won fourth place and 0.24 percent of the vote in 1988 through the cultlike, anti-Semitic New Alliance Party.
That's been the record of women in general elections in the US, ever since Victoria Woodhull became the first woman nominee of any party in 1872 — nearly 50 years before suffrage, a time when her candidacy was considered so frivolous that election officials didn't even count her votes.
There have been credible runs by women for major party nominations before, but surprisingly few. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME) got more than 200,000 votes in 1964 before losing to Barry Goldwater. Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) got more than 400,000 in 1972; Rep. Patsy Mink (D-HI) got more than 8,000. Former Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole dropped out in 2000 before any vote had been cast. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) dropped out after only one primary in 2004, and even she got more votes than Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) or Carly Fiorina in 2012 and 2016, respectively.
In that context, Clinton's two runs stick out dramatically. This primary cycle, she got more than 16.8 million votes. In 2008 she got 16.6 million votes, excluding ones cast in the renegade Michigan and Florida primaries. She has outperformed every other female contender in history by two orders of magnitude. Even if she loses in November, she will remain, by far, the most successful female politician in the history of the United States.
This point was underscored by the multiple state delegates featured during the roll call vote on Tuesday who were born before the 19th Amendment was ratified. These women are literally older than their own right to vote — and after more than 96 long years have seen their right to vote turn into an opportunity to vote for a woman, a woman backed by a major party with a real shot at victory. It’s a remarkable culmination of decades of struggle, whether you like or loathe Clinton the individual.
Winner: Party unity
The odds were pretty good that somebody was going to say these words at the DNC:
Madame Chair, I move that the convention suspend the procedural rules. I move that all votes, all votes cast by delegates, be reflected in the official record. And I move that Hillary Clinton be selected as the nominee of the Democratic Party for president of the United States.
But it was hugely meaningful that they were ultimately said not by Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, not by a politician from her home state like Chuck Schumer, not by a longtime Clinton ally like Terry McAuliffe, but by Bernie Sanders.
It was a fitting end to the primary race, one in which Sanders got to put himself and his supporters in the center of the action while all the same loudly proclaiming his loyalty to Clinton and intention to fight for her election.
In retrospect, it should’ve been obvious that the roll call vote would be a moment of great catharsis for Sanders supporters. It offered Sanders delegates from the 23 contests he won a chance to address the convention, to reiterate the importance of his campaign, and show just how close he came. And they took it, again and again:
- “Alaska casts … 14 votes for the inspiring progressive, Bernie Sanders!”
- “Hawaii casts … 19 votes for the leader of our revolution which shall continue, the man who inspired young people nationwide, Berners all over this great land, for a future we can believe in, Sen. Bernie Sanders!”
- "Illinois proudly casts for a true progressive and the father of the new political revolution 74 votes for Bernie Sanders!"
- “Vermont … the state that helped fight and win the political revolution of 2016 thanks to our senator, Bernie Sanders … the home state of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has changed the trajectory of this country in a way that will make the lives of working Americans better for generations to come."
The complaint throughout the primary’s denouement from Sanders supporters has been that they were voiceless, that they were ignored and not given the attention and platforms that Clinton and her supporters got. You couldn’t dream up a better way to compensate for that concern than the roll call vote. It gave Sanders delegates an opportunity to make their case to a large audience, to demonstrate their strength as a movement, to praise the ideals that drove the campaign.
And when it all ended, it was on their terms. While at the Republican convention, New York delayed its turn so it could cast the deciding votes to nominate Donald Trump, here Vermont got to delay to the end, to amplify it and Sanders’s moment and give him a chance to do the honors and properly hand Clinton the nomination.
None of these were policy wins for the Sanders movement. But they were crucial displays of respect for the campaign from the Democratic establishment, after months of perceived disrespect and in the immediate aftermath of hacked emails being released seeming to prove that disrespect. The result was a tremendous healing moment for the party.
The rise of Black Lives Matter is a clear rebuke of the Clinton record on crime and race — but the rejection of the actual ideology of Bill Clinton’s administration on display at this convention is more thoroughgoing than that.
Clinton did more than anyone to reconfigure the politics of trade such that a large and vocal faction of Democrats championed liberalization and bi- and multilateral trade deals as engines of economic growth and necessary supports for poor nations. He pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement. He was a crucial part of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) round that saw GATT turn into the World Trade Organization. He oversaw China’s entry into the WTO and the massive rise of Chinese exports to the US that followed.
And this convention featured his wife loudly rejecting a large multilateral trade deal crafted by a Democratic president, egged on by Bill’s ’90s-vintage opponents on the issue like Bernie Sanders and the AFL-CIO.
Bill signed a 1996 bill that overhauled the immigration system to make it easier to deport people and harder to legalize people already here. That helped create the undocumented immigration situation as it currently exists and runs totally contrary to this convention’s repeated vocal opposition to large-scale deportation and its emphasis on celebrating and providing platforms to undocumented immigrants like DREAMers.
Bill emphasized fiscal discipline as the cornerstone of his fiscal policy, but the focus of the convention, and the Democratic platform, is not on straightening out the federal books. Rather, it’s on adding new programs like tuition-free college and infrastructure spending, which might be paid for but will not be accompanied by efforts to close the existing deficit.
Bill was sympathetic to financial deregulation and closely allied with Wall Street, appointing former Goldman Sachs chief Robert Rubin as one of his top economic advisers and Treasury secretaries. The second day of the convention in particular celebrated Sanders’s campaign for taking on Wall Street and emphasizing the need to still further regulate it.
There are some basic areas where Bill and the party are still in alignment. They both want universal health care. They both want to ban assault weapons. They both like a 39.6 percent top marginal tax rate on high earners. But the rightward move Bill engineered in response to the defeats of 1984 and 1988 has been almost entirely undone, and then some. And his wife was a key part of that process.
Loser: Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy message
You would think that the night when Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s predecessor as secretary of state and a longtime friend and confidante, spoke would feature some kind of robust defense of Clinton’s foreign policy record and an affirmative vision going forward. Nope.
As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp notes, this is the only part of Albright’s speech that addressed Clinton’s record from 2009 to 2013 at all:
When Hillary served as secretary of state, I watched her partner with President Obama to restore our country's reputation around the world. She fought terrorism, she stopped the spread of nuclear weapons, and promoted diplomacy, defense, development and democracy — smart power -- in every corner of the world. As I travel around the world today, I'm reminded how important it is that the person who represents our nation is trusted by our allies, and who listens more than she talks.
That is about the vaguest way you could possibly praise someone. There are no specifics, no anecdotes, no record of achievement, just assertions that America's "smart power" has been enhanced. Cool!
The strange thing is that Clinton actually does have real accomplishments from her time at State. She was crucial to the US rapprochement with Burma, and she initiated the talks that lead to the nuclear deal with Iran. She oversaw the end of the Qaddafi regime — and while Libya is hardly a successful state now, it’s not mired in a bloody civil war as seemed likely in 2011, and a massacre of Qaddafi opponents in Benghazi was averted. The State Department under Clinton’s leadership negotiated New START, a significant nuclear arms reduction pact with Russia. She was in the room when bin Laden was killed, and supported the raid to kill him.
You can debate any or all of these points, but they’re all perfectly good enough to be included in a speech meant to bolster Clinton’s reputation as a potential commander in chief. And yet they were left out. It was a baffling stumble, one that bodes ill for the rest of the convention’s handling of foreign policy.