Hillary Clinton’s speech: In praise of unity, if not Obama

A cursory glance at the major media headlines confirms what I suspected would happen: the cumulative thrust of the coverage of the second day of the convention focuses on Hillary Clinton’s call for party unity on behalf of Obama’s campaign. This is accurate as far as it goes, but it leaves out perhaps the more significant part of the story: What Hillary did NOT say:

She did not repudiate in any manner her criticisms of Obama that she leveled during the primary campaign – that he is not ready to be president.  She did not praise his leadership qualities – temperament, skills, experiences, etc. She said almost nothing about him as a candidate. Instead her message was quite clear:  I am supporting him, and asking you to do so, for the sake of Democratic party unity so that we can win the presidency in the fall.  It was an endorsement of Obama as the party’s standard bearer – not an endorsement of Obama’s qualities as president.

Historically, Hillary is not the first presidential candidate forced to make this type of speech on behalf of a rival.  And in comparison to some noteworthy previous efforts, her speech appears quite effusive in its praise of Obama.  Those of you who can recall Ronald Reagan’s tepid speech in support of Gerald Ford in 1976, or Ted Kennedy’s “the dream will never die” speech at the 1980 Democratic convention, when he basically ignored the actual nominee Jimmy Carter, can appreciate how much better Clinton’s speech in support of Obama was than these previous efforts.

But she could have done more.  Why didn’t she?  It is tempting to claim that she is bitter, or resentful, or that the Clintons simply can’t bear to get off the stage.  But this strikes me as going too deep into psychoanalysis and does not give her enough credit. I think there is a simpler answer: raw politics combined with personal conviction.  The fact of the matter is that Clinton remains a huge power broker in the Democratic party.  She controls about half the delegates at this convention, and by most measures won more popular votes than Obama in the nominating campaign.  Indeed, if you take out the 9-day period  from February  9-19, when  the Democrats held 10 contests, including 4 caucuses, in 11 days and Obama won convincingly in every one, (he outpolled Clinton in popular votes in these contests by an astounding 62% to her 37%, winning 2.2 million votes to her 1.3 million) Clinton is the party nominee by a comfortable margin.  What happened in those 11 days is the subject of another post, but by Feb. 19, the media narrative had irrevocably altered. Although Clinton changed her campaign message at that point to emphasize a more centrist policy message, went on the attack against Obama, and regained her footing, she was never able to overcome the shift in media and voter perception.

In short, Clinton went into last night’s speech with two essential but somewhat conflicting convictions: that Obama was the party nominee and that it was in her interest – and the party’s interest – to do everything possible to insure that he wins in November. At the same time, however, she believes she would make the better president, and that given the opportunity she would do better in the general election.  Given these somewhat contradictory impulses, I thought she did the only thing she could do last night: give an impassioned plea for party unity, but without violating her fundamental belief that she is the better candidate. She remained true to her core convictions – an admirable trait, even if you don’t agree with them.

But will Bill show the same restraint?  We’ll find out….

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