That’s a wrap, folks.
After two straight weeks of primetime electioneering, the 2016 party convention season has come to an end, with Hillary Clinton wrapping up the Democratic event in Philadelphia with one of the strongest speeches she’s given in her career.
It was a long, multifaceted address that followed a carefully designed program which included some substantively interesting, if not always well-known, names. More than just about any other night of the convention, it was put together to send important signals about Clinton and the party’s priorities, the constituencies they value, and what commitments they consider most important.
Here’s who ended the night better than they started, and who lost ground.
Winner: Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton has a reputation as a mediocre public speaker at best. That’s understandable when you consider whom she’s compared against. Basically anyone, when assessed alongside Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, two of the best orators in the history of American politics, will look bad.
But her nomination acceptance speech was a good reminder that when necessary, Clinton can really make a big address land. One major difference was scale. Most speeches people see her give are run-of-the-mill campaign stump speeches, which are necessarily chummier, looser, less scripted, occupying an uncomfortable medium between the close, one-on-one or small group listening sessions that Clinton thrives in and big arena-size keynotes like her convention speech.
Clinton is awkward in that middle area, for sure. She doesn’t feel as comfortable joshing around as she would with a smaller group, and it shows, and yet the type of event necessitates at least some of that, to uneven effects.
But when she just needs to give a speech to a gigantic national viewership, and not vibe and connect with 100 to 1,000 people in a high school gymnasium, she does pretty damn well. Her 2008 address was an unqualified success, doing an even better job than Bernie Sanders did this year of burying the primary hatchet and energizing her supporters in the crowd to support Obama.
And her speech Thursday night was similarly solid. Her delivery was strong, consistent, and confident. She wove in personal anecdotes fluidly rather than conspicuously. She alluded to Sanders at crucial moments ("Bernie Sanders and I will work together to make college tuition free for the middle class and debt-free for all!") but had notes in there for Republicans scared of Trump as well ("I will be a president for Democrats, Republicans, and independents").
She had to toe a careful line between shoring up the Bernie-sympathetic base and expanding her appeal to right-of-center voters alienated from an unprecedentedly terrifying Republican nominee, and she toed it well.
And I’d be remiss not to mention the sheer emotional impact of the speech, even apart from how it was delivered. The first speech as nominee of the first woman nominated by a major party was always going to be a moment. And sure enough, Clinton delivered:
I remember this woman getting shit in 1992 for not baking cookies & this is the most fucking satisfying moment ever.— Mary Beth Williams (@embeedub) July 29, 2016
I'm watching the convention, and I'll say only this:— Ashley Esqueda (@AshleyEsqueda) July 29, 2016
I did not realize how much this moment meant to me as a woman until right now.
Clinton was under tremendous pressure going into tonight. Trump has received his convention bump and is narrowly leading in the polls, and the consequences of his election are legitimately graver than the consequences of Republican victory in any previous election in memory. If Clinton somehow botched her convention speech, she’d never hear the end of it.
But she nailed it. The precise benefits of nailing it, polling-wise, remain to be seen, but it’s hard to imagine what a better closing speech than this would’ve looked like.
Winner: Disability rights
The second night of the Democratic National Convention was also the 26th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. It was, further, the day of a horrifying anti-disabled hate crime in Japan, where a former employee of a caregiving facility who had expressed support for euthanizing the disabled without their consent carried through on that idea by returning to his employer and stabbing 19 people to death. It was the worst mass killing in Japan since World War II.
This is the uneasy state of disability rights in the world today. Yes, a quarter-century ago politicians of both parties came together to guarantee disabled Americans protection against discrimination, and basic physical access to public life. But we still live in a world where many people consider disability a fate worse than death, and are all too willing to murder disabled people (and people on the autism spectrum, like me) for being an inconvenience.
In that context, the consistent emphasis placed on disability rights at the Democratic convention was immensely encouraging. It began Monday night, with the remarks of Anastasia Somoza, a longtime disability rights activist who addressed the convention from her wheelchair.
Somoza got a major platform to argue for the key principle of disability rights: that the disabled don't need pity; they need services and fair treatment. "In a country where 56 million Americans with disabilities so often feel invisible, Hillary Clinton sees me," Somoza told the audience. 'She sees me as a strong woman, a young professional, a hard worker, and the proud daughter of immigrants. … I am confident that as our president Hillary will do everything in her power to promote the rights, empowerment, and humanity of all Americans."
The specific language here is important. Somoza’s praise for Clinton isn’t that Clinton feels bad for the plight of the disabled and deigns to throw them help out of patronizing concern. Somoza praises Clinton for seeing her, for respecting her as a professional and an independent agent in her own life. She praises Clinton for understanding the basic demands for autonomy that disabled Americans have been making, too often in vain, for decades.
Clinton demonstrated this attitude in her own speech Thursday night, recounting an anecdote from her time working on disability rights at the Children’s Defense Fund:
I went to work for the Children's Defense Fund, going door to door in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on behalf of children with disabilities who were denied the chance to go to school.
I remember meeting a young girl in a wheelchair on the small back porch of her house. She told me how badly she wanted to go to school – it just didn't seem possible.
The emphasis, once again, is on the voice and agency of the disabled person. Clinton’s advocacy was explicitly centered on helping this girl gain autonomy, to see her desire to go to school respected.
As disability rights activist Ari Ne’eman noted at Vox on Wednesday, Democrats haven’t always been this tonally on point about disability issues. Sometimes, as in Christopher Reeve’s 1996 DNC speech, the focus was more on disability as a public health issue than on the lived experiences of disabled people.
The way the issue was discussed in Clinton’s speech, and the presence of Somoza, represent a real step forward, and an indication that the Democratic party sees the disabled community as " minority group on par with black and Latino voters, Jews and Muslims, and the LGBTQ community," a constituency rather than victims.
Winner: Left militarism
Perhaps the least emphasized fact of this presidential election is that whoever wins, American foreign policy is going to get more belligerent, more inclined to the use of military force to solve problems, less accepting of the limits of American power to resolve conflicts.
Yes, Donald Trump is more hawkish and militaristic than Hillary Clinton, as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp has made clear. But it’s also the case that Hillary Clinton is more hawkish and militaristic than Barack Obama. She, of course, supported the Iraq invasion when Obama didn't. In the primary, she attacked him for proposing direct talks without preconditions with the leaders of Cuba and Iran.
When the Obama administration was divided on an Afghan surge in 2009, Clinton was one of the biggest advocates inside for an increased troop commitment. She was a major driving force behind the 2011 Libya intervention. She and David Petraeus unsuccessfully pushed Obama to arm Syrian rebels in 2012. Even today, Clinton calls for a no-fly zone in Syria, a policy Obama has resisted.
And she has not really been challenged on this. Bernie Sanders didn’t care about foreign policy, preferring to critique her on economics. So as a result, the Democratic convention has spent a surprising amount of time attempting to burnish Clinton’s credential as militarily tougher than Trump.
Nowhere was this more in evidence on Thursday night than in the remarks of retired Gen. John Allen, the former chief general in Afghanistan and special presidential envoy on ISIS. Allen’s rhetoric did not merely emphasize Clinton’s competence and experience. It touted her in terms that were, frankly, neoconservative in tone:
With her as our commander in chief, America will continue to lead this global world. We will oppose and resist tyranny, and we will defeat evil. America will defeat ISIS and protect the homeland.
…With Hillary Clinton as our commander in chief, the United States will continue to be that indispensable transformational power in the world. To her allies — our allies and partners — listen closely. We are with you. America will not abandon you. To those acting against peace, acting against disorder, we will oppose you. To our enemies, to our enemies, we will pursue you as only America can. You will fear us. To ISIS and others like you, we will defeat you.
The image of America in the world promoted by Obama was as a powerful but hardly omnipotent moral leader, which works to build multilateral institutions but accepts there are problems it cannot solve, that it cannot rid the world of tyranny, that it cannot end every civil conflict and defeat every terrorist.
That is the not the image Allen argued for, that he promised Clinton would promote. Allen promised an administration that would not rest until terrorists are defeated, that will oppose any and all threats to peace, that will "defeat evil," whatever that means.
It’s a startlingly broad, ambitious vision for America’s role in the world, one that confirms the fears of Democratic doves that Clinton will dramatically ramp up America’s involvement in Syria and be all too eager to dive into additional conflicts the world over. Anyone hoping that the US will be engaged in fewer wars come 2020 than it is fighting today should come away from the convention’s final night very, very disappointed.
Winner: Trans visibility
The Democratic National Convention featured openly gay speakers impressively early in its history, with Jim Foster and Madeline Davis both receiving time to speak at the 1972 gathering. Log Cabin Republican Steve Fong was the first to address a Republican convention 24 years later, in 1996.
But in a sign of the neglect trans causes have received even as LGB Americans made gains, before this year not a single trans person addressed a major party convention. So the fact that Sarah McBride, the Human Rights Campaign’s national press secretary, spoke at this year’s DNC was a major milestone.
McBride was a natural choice. A longtime Democratic activist who worked for Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and the state’s late Attorney General Beau Biden as a teenager, she made headlines when, while serving as student government president at American University, she came out as trans in 2012. Not long after she put the news on Facebook, Beau Biden called her to say, "Hallie and I are so proud of you, and you're still part of the Biden family."
From there, she joined the White House as an intern in the Office of Public Engagement, becoming the first openly transgender woman to work in the White House. As her DNC speech (which you can read here) recounted, she was widowed in 2014, when she married her boyfriend, a trans man, just five days before he died after a struggle with cancer.
As Vox's German Lopez explains, McBride's inclusion is notable especially in light of the short shrift trans rights have often received relative to other LGBT causes. When "don't ask, don't tell" was repealed in 2010, the ban on openly trans service members was not repealed alongside it (that happened only this year).
In 2007, gender identity was added for the first time to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act pro-LGBT legislators introduced in Congress every session, and was swiftly removed when Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) and others concluded that the bill couldn't pass with trans provisions. Gay rights came first, and trans rights were often neglected in the process.
But the reactionary push against trans rights in North Carolina and other states has spurred the broader LGBTQ rights movement to take trans-specific issues more seriously. The inclusion of McBride in the DNC’s program is a sign that the party, which counts the LGBTQ community as a major constituency, is on the same page, and take trans Americans seriously as a part of the Democratic coalition.
Loser: Donald Trump’s brand power
I don’t know if you know this, but Donald Trump likes to brag sometimes. In particular, he loves to brag about getting big ratings.
When The Apprentice was on, he would routinely lie and tell people it was the No. 1 show on television, even though NBC officials would quietly concede it wasn’t. After the first Democratic debate in August, he bragged about the massive ratings he got for Fox News:
Almost universal support that "Trump won the debate." Only @FoxNews is consistantly fighting the Trump win, and I got them the ratings!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 8, 2015
When he pulled out of the Fox debate in late January, he promised their ratings would plummet as a result:
The "debate" tonight will be a total disaster - low ratings with advertisers and advertising rates dropping like a rock. I hate to see this.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 28, 2016
Just this past week he bragged about the big numbers the RNC pulled in:
One of the best produced, including the incredible stage & set, in the history of conventions. Great unity! Big T.V. ratings! @KarlRove— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2016
Just one problem: The RNC is currently losing to the DNC in ratings:
- Night one of the DNC got 25.74 million viewers, compared with 23.02 million for night one of the RNC.
- Night two got 25.12 million viewers, compared with 19.75 million for night two of the RNC.
- Night three got 24.03 million viewers, compared with 23.4 million for night three of the RNC.
Cumulatively, that’s 8.7 million more viewers for the DNC than the RNC. And Donald Trump is not pleased. His campaign sent out an email begging supporters not to watch night four:
"Don't watch Hillary's DNC speech tonight," new Trump fund-raising email says (via a colleague) pic.twitter.com/uBRRpUrLmL— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) July 28, 2016
This is more than just a campaign setback for Trump. It’s a setback that cuts right to the core of what Trump considers valuable about himself. It doesn’t appear to faze him that Clinton destroys him on fundraising; getting political donors to like him is not something Trump prides himself on, and if anything skill at that cuts against his anti-establishment vibe.
But the idea that Clinton and her team are bigger names, that they’re bigger draws for TV viewers, suggests that Trump is wanting as a brand, as a TV personality. And he really, really does care that people think he’s a compelling TV attraction, that he puts on a great show.
By damaging Trump’s reputation as a showman, the DNC’s superior ratings don’t just hurt him in the election. They undermine a key source of his economic success more generally, should he lose the election and throw himself back into the entertainment game.
Loser: Trump’s Muslim ban
One of the least expected, most moving moments of the evening came with the remarks of Khizr Khan, an immigrant of Pakistani origin who moved to the US from the United Arab Emirates and whose son, Humayun, was killed while serving as an Army captain in Baquba, Iraq. Capt. Khan died trying to stop a speeding vehicle, which turned out to have two suicide bombers and large amounts of explosives in it.
"Our son, Humayun, had dreams also," the elder Khan told the DNC. "Dreams of being a military lawyer. But he put those dreams aside the day he sacrificed his life to save his fellow soldiers."
Khan’s speech was not primarily about his son’s sacrifice, however. It was a fierce, emotional condemnation of Trump’s anti-Muslim prejudice, at the idea that America could be made safer by preventing it from having citizens like Humayun Khan.
"Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery?" he demanded of the Republican nominee. "To look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America? You will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing." That last line, in particular, was brutally powerful, coming as it did from a man who has sacrificed everything.
It was also powerful after a Democratic convention that spent surprisingly little time on the Muslim ban, the single most shocking, unprecedented part of Trump’s platform. Condemnations of his comments about wages being too high were far more common in speeches during the convention’s first three days, as were allusions to his mockery of a disabled reporter. Worse still, Bill Clinton’s speech included an offensive, reductive mention of the American Muslim community that seemed to imply its only value is in countering terrorism.
So it was encouraging to see the convention’s last day, both with Khan’s speech and that of basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, redirect the event’s focus toward the Muslim ban and emphasize how unprecedented, horrifying, and personally victimizing a plan it is, and how deeply it’s hurt the Muslim community already.
Chelsea may love you, but you are extremely dead. RIP, dinosaurs.