When all was said and done, Team Hillary had to be pretty happy. Their four nights in Philadelphia turned out better than almost anyone expected.
Thursday night featured an orchestrated symphony of praise for Hillary Clinton and a precision-bombing of her opponent, Donald Trump.
Clinton’s own remarks at the conclusion will not enter the pantheon of great American prose or political rhetoric. But no one had been reserving a place there. More importantly, she provided a fitting conclusion to the proceedings, meeting her own mark and cutting a convincing figure as the nation’s first female president.
Think of it this way: She got it done. No, she didn’t seem to be having fun doing it. Not half as much as Barack Obama did when setting the table for her the night before (and not to mention her husband, Bill, on Tuesday night). She did not have the magic Michelle Obama flashed on Monday night, when she moved the delegates and set the tone for a winning week.
Yet Hillary Clinton’s moment was the most important of all, the one that marked paid to the entire enterprise. And it played even better on TV than inside the convention hall. (More on why that was so, in a moment.)
Whatever the judgment of the polls in the days ahead, the party’s quadrennial confab represented an achievement in careful and effective political management. It was not just crisis survived, but crisis transcended.
Let us reflect for just a moment. Team Clinton and the Democratic National Committee hit town last weekend facing all kinds of bad weather.
First, literally: A heat wave studded with violent thunder, lightning and downpours.
Second: A flood of bad publicity was unleashed with WikiLeaks’ release of nearly 20,000 emails from DNC staffers that revealed bias against rival candidate Bernie Sanders. Long assumed, though often denied, this evidence of the DNC tilt broke the dam on Sanders fans’ bitterness and resentment — and at that worst possible time.
Third: Gale winds carried in the hot allegations and abuse from the Republican convention the previous week in Cleveland, where the catchphrase chanted regularly by the crowds was: “Lock her up.”
All in all, a troubled forecast.
But as people filed out of the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night, most all of them seemed remarkably satisfied. Even many of the Sanders folks seemed resigned, or, at least, not overly disappointed. Most were also willing to vote against Trump, even if they couldn’t quite vote for Clinton.
The intervening days brought tense moments. The first afternoon, the Sanders forces were in full cry — booing every mention of Clinton’s name. There seemed to be little prospect for peace, and many opportunities for disruption and chaos.
Sanders’ delegates arrived lacking the votes to contest the nomination, yet many seemed to believe Sanders might still win. They thought the release of the DNC emails proved Clinton’s nomination was rigged, and they imagined this would be enough to pry open the delegate allocations or persuade superdelegates to switch to Sanders.
These reactions overestimated the importance and power of the DNC, which was important in many ways, but far from critical, in determining who voted or how. Still, the WikiLeaks release served to confirm the suspicion that party rules and party rulers were somehow overruling the popular will of the people.
It was obvious that the DNC controversies fed into a Rules Committee decision to reduce the future numbers of superdelegates (elected officials and party leaders who are uncommitted participants in the nominating convention and may vote their own conscience). In 2020, such delegates will be reduced from 720 to 250.
But negotiations were going forward even then. Sanders’ people were talking, and there were delegation leaders willing to work overtime to heal wounds. Sanders himself, having already formally conceded, intervened to urge his delegates to show respect, if only to preserve the gains they had made as a movement.
By Thursday night, the convention organizers had perfected their defense against the hardcore of holdouts. Where the Sanders people wore bright yellow shirts to set themselves apart and held up signs protesting fracking or trade deals, the Clinton delegates sprouted American flags to wave about. There were also much larger American flags on poles that seemed to appear just in front of the more visible concentrations of Sanders people.
Outside, throughout the four days, there were thousands of protesters from Black Lives Matter and anti-war, anti-capitalist, anti-fracking and just plain anti-Clinton groups.
They were kept away from the hall by barriers and police, but they did dump a mock coffin labeled “DNC” over one fence. Police arrested a handful and issued citations to dozens more. They did not manage to make much impression on those inside the arena.
Despite all this, there remained the thought that “more unites us than divides us,” to quote candidate Clinton in one of her early appeals to Sanders supporters.
For many Democrats, the “more unites us” argument matters but does not truly motivate. What focuses their minds is the prospect of losing the White House this fall. While never welcome, that prospect has become truly disconcerting to them with Trump’s takeover of the GOP.
Whenever the energy of the week seemed to flag, a fresh assault on Trump revitalized the proceedings. On the final night, the program reached an early emotional peak with the testimony of Khizr Khan, the father of a young U.S. Army captain killed protecting his troops from a truck bomb.
The father stood onstage with his wife and calmly, haltingly voiced his rage at Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration.
Khan held up his personal copy of the U.S. Constitution to offer it to Trump, questioning whether the Republican had ever read it. He also wondered whether Trump had ever visited Arlington Cemetery to see what other people had sacrificed for their country, adding: “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
In fact, much of the program on stage this week in Philly was clearly meant to appeal to disaffected Republicans left feeling a chill last week in Cleveland. A basic element of this appeal was the robust embrace of traditional patriotism, its rhetoric and symbols.
For example, on Thursday night the program offered retired Marine Gen. John Allen, an old-school combat commander who stood onstage with 37 other veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Allen announced his support for Clinton in full-throated and almost apocalyptic terms, while his silent chorus nodded and applauded behind him.
Rich Galen, a longtime Republican operative who was a spokesman for former Vice President Dick Cheney, sent a tweet saying he was watching from his kitchen Thursday night in tears because the Democrats’ convention looked more like his party than the event he saw in Cleveland last week. He was far from alone.
Longtime GOP strategist and campaign handler Stuart Stevens tweeted that Thursday night looked more like the last night of the 2004 convention in New York than anything he had seen in Cleveland. That was the last year the Republicans won the presidential election.
For those who spent weeks and months — and then critical hours — making the 2016 Democratic National Convention a success, it was not just a job. But in the first predawn hours after it ended, they could at least congratulate themselves on having done their job well.