PHILADELPHIA — Shortly after Hillary Clinton officially became the first female major party nominee for president in the history of the United States, I found myself in line in the women’s bathroom.
Woman after woman — most in middle age or older — emerged with wet, red eyes. She’d make a beeline to the mirror to fix her eyeliner, or look around at the other women in the center of the bathroom and smile.
They’d been waiting to cry in peace.
One red-eyed woman wore custom canvas shoes with #ImWithHer drawn across the toes in an artistic angular design. Another wore what I can only describe as full suffragette cosplay: a sash across her chest saying "VOTES FOR WOMEN."
"96 years," she told the photographer as she posed for a photo. "96 years."
It was a powerful celebration. But it was a private one. Throughout Clinton’s 2016 campaign, her supporters have often seemed sequestered from the rest of the world. Some of them confine themselves to secret women-only online groups, or simply privately wonder why this run for president feels so much less exciting than her 2008 campaign.
The rest of America simply doesn’t feel the same way they do. Most Sanders supporters say they’ll vote for Clinton in November, but that doesn’t diminish the genuine pain in the hallways on Tuesday night as they mourned the prospect. Fifty-six percent of Americans have an unfavorable perception of Clinton — a fact that would sink her candidacy if it weren’t for the fact that even more Americans feel the same way about Donald Trump.
Hillary Clinton makes the unsexy case for policy promises
Democrats never could get Americans as a whole to feel the way those women in the Wells Fargo Center bathroom feel about Hillary Clinton. But tonight showed they don’t necessarily have to try.
The second night of the convention was supposed to be the night to humanize Clinton, by bringing out person after person who’s worked with her on key issues throughout her career.
For the most part, it didn’t work. When Elizabeth Banks followed up Bill Clinton’s speech by saying "if you’re as energized as I am right now," it fell totally flat. Of all the things that excited DNC delegates on Tuesday night — and there were several of them — hearing Bill Clinton humanize Hillary Clinton was very low on the list.
Here’s what did.
They gave standing ovations and "Black Lives Matter" chants before and after speeches by several "Mothers of the Movement" who’d lost their children to law enforcement and racial violence. These speeches had some of the delegates hanging on to their every word, every bit as rapt as anyone was to legendary raconteur Bill Clinton later in the night. They cheered in relief as Planned Parenthood Action Fund president Cecile Richards said the word "abortion" in a primetime convention broadcast, without euphemism or apology.
It’s not that these things had nothing to do with Hillary Clinton — it was apparently Clinton, for example, who recommended that Sandra Bland’s mother start making appearances with the other mothers on the stage. But it was often clear that delegates were cheering for Clinton less than they were cheering the things Clinton had done for them.
Stories about Clinton’s work with 9/11 first responders and their families appeared to draw an emotional response from the crowd — but on second look, the cheering was pretty well confined to the New York delegation, conveniently placed directly in front of the stage.
This is the 2016 Democratic nominee: Even her humanizing anecdotes are a form of constituency outreach.
Someone bet Bill he wouldn't name every damn state during tonight's speech. And he's about five states from winning that bet. #DemsInPhilly— Danny Forinash (@LCannon57) July 27, 2016
Of course, in an important way, a lot of people are excited about Hillary Clinton insofar as she’s just made history for women in America. But even that, somehow, feels different than it did eight years ago when Barack Obama was the first black American to be nominated for president by a major party.
People talked about what a black first family would mean for America; tonight’s speakers talked, again and again, about what a woman president and first husband would mean for their young daughters or granddaughters. It’s as if the presidency were a one-time block grant, highly targeted at 7- to 12-year-old girls.
Hillary Clinton’s persona is what she wants to do for people
Think about this too hard and it quickly becomes disorienting, in the same way that words lose their meaning if you focus too closely on how they sound. Tonight’s convention program felt like trying to look closely at Hillary Clinton, only to have your eye strategically distracted, time and again, like the mark in a magic trick.
But if you don’t think about it too hard, it’s just normal. It is the most normal thing a politician can be.
Politicians aren’t just human beings. They’re avatars for the coalition of interest groups, voting blocs, and ideologies that got them there. They’re trying to make the best decisions for their constituencies.
Politicians’ choices are almost always the result of analyzing the costs and benefits a given option would have for those constituencies.
The message of tonight’s convention programming was that if you want to know who Hillary Clinton is, you should look at what she’s done for people like you. That is all the proof of her character you need.
That seems perfectly reasonable. It doesn’t even sound uninspiring.
The "cult of personality" looks a lot less cool on Trump than on Obama
One big reason is that Hillary Clinton — or at least, "Hillary Clinton," the presidential candidate — does have some sort of personality. From Texts From Hillary to the candidate’s suspiciously young- and hip-sounding Twitter feed, young politically engaged progressives have found a way to construct a social media presence around Clinton that feels, if not authentic to her, then at least like a well-chosen accessory.
Everyone knows that Hillary Clinton doesn’t write her own tweets, of course. It’s not like it’s a betrayal to hear anecdotes about her onstage at the convention that don’t sound like the same "person" who once told @realDonaldTrump to delete his account. It’s more that the convention speeches are a reminder that the cute tweets aren’t in a politician’s job description — that creating the fictive persona/imaginary friend that is a "social media voice" isn’t something, strictly speaking, that Hillary Clinton ought to need to do.
Focusing less on Hillary Clinton than on the promises she and her party are making seems like the coolheaded, mature perspective when you’re holding her up next to Donald Trump. Trump ludicrously proposes that the morning of his inauguration — several hours before he officially takes the oath of office — America will magically become safer (presumably because the name Trump will strike fear in the hearts of every would-be criminal, immigrant, or terrorist at dawn). His ego is his constituency, and his persona is his platform.
Even though Trumpism is a fairly coherent and powerful attitude that goes way deeper than Trump himself, it’s common to describe the candidate’s success as the function of a "cult of personality." And it’s not exactly wrong, for the simple reason that Trump wouldn’t have successfully lasted in the race this long if he weren’t a believer in his own personality cult — if he didn’t believe that simply by virtue of being Donald Trump he could get things done that no previous president has been able to do.
But the lack of passion for a "humanized" Hillary Clinton (especially in her 2016 incarnation) also forces a little more critical distance toward the Obama administration. Obama — and even more so, the Obama family — inspire the kind of imaginary friend–level emotional investment Clinton seems to repel.
A lot of Democrats, voters, and members of the press have openly swooned over the glamour of the current first couple. The thought of the president and first lady hanging out with Jay-Z and Beyoncé inspires shivers of joy — it seems a fitting expression not only of the Knowles-Carters’ power but of the Obamas’ celebrity.
There is no glamour in the appeal of Hillary Clinton. She offers something older and more modest — machine politics, made over for an era when ideology is the machine. Give me your vote, and I will work to get you this. No more. Possibly less, if less is all I can get.
It’s an offer that Democrats weren’t willing to take in 2008, when they needed to be inspired. In 2016, it appears, there are other things to get inspired about. For Democrats — and maybe, but maybe not, for Americans — it’s enough to get excited about the other things and trust that Hillary Clinton will try to deliver them.
CORRECTION: This article originally misstated the affiliation of Cecile Richards. She spoke as president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.