Hillary Clinton’s historic address Thursday night shows she knows her general election battle with Donald Trump could be a photo finish.
Just before 11 p.m. on Thursday, Clinton became the first woman in American history to accept a major political party’s presidential nomination.
But instead of focusing her remarks mostly on that glass ceiling —shattering feat, she instead described her presidential agenda in deep detail — and focused on a topic she repeatedly has struggled to sell to America: herself.
“The truth is, through all these years of public service, the ‘service’ part has always come easier to me than the ‘public’ part,” she said. “I get it that some people just don’t know what to make of me. So let me tell you.”
She also went directly at the Republican nominee several times, telling voters he is selling them nothing but “empty promises.” The Democratic nominee also cast the man who stands between her and the White House as lacking the kind of character needed to lead the country.
At one point she criticized his comments about Hispanic immigrants and Muslims , later calling it a “sad truth” that “there is no other Donald Trump — this is it.”
“It comes down to something Donald Trump doesn’t get: America is great because America is good,” Clinton said as the friendly audience roared its approval.
At the GOP convention last week, Trump essentially told voters he would single-handedly solve the country’s problems. Clinton took umbrage.
“Every generation of Americans has come together to make our country freer, fairer, and stronger,” she said. “None of us can do it alone. That’s why we are stronger together.”
Pockets of protest
Sporadic outbursts from small pockets of protesters in the arena disrupted Clinton several times, but the overwhelming majority of supporters was prepared to shout “Hillary! Hillary!” to overwhelm the disruptions.
Clinton cast herself as a longtime fighter for average Americans, from disabled children to working families to victims of the 9/11 attacks in New York.
“I sweat the details,” she told delegates at the Wells Fargo Center and millions watching on television and streaming on the web.
“Because it’s not just the details if it’s your kid, your family, it’s a big deal. And it should be a big deal to your president, too,” she said, vowing to be a president “for all Americans together.”
After laying out a bold agenda for her would-be presidency, she told voters she can end the Obama-era gridlock in Washington.
“Look at my record. I have worked across the aisle to pass laws and treaties,” she said. “If you give me the chance, that’s exactly what I’ll do as president.”
Focus on economy
As she has on the campaign trail, she vowed to focus her presidency on economic issues — including ones vaulted to the front burner of the Democratic nominating process by her primary foe, independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
She promised, if elected, “to empower all Americans to live better lives.”
“My primary mission as president will be to create more opportunity and more good jobs with rising wages right here in the United States — from my first day in office to my last,”Clinton said. “Especially in places that for too long have been left out and left behind: From our inner cities to our small towns, Indian Country to Coal Country. From the industrial Midwest to the Mississippi Delta to the Rio Grande Valley.”
She said she would focus her economic policies on ensuring the middle class is better off — notably, those are the kinds of voters who likely will decide the election in a handful of battleground states.
She vowed to nominate Supreme Court justices who would rid the political system of big-money donors. And she promised to push a Constitutional amendment that would overturn the controversial Citizens United decision, which some experts say opened the floodgates of campaign donations.
Her lengthy to-do list also included a criminal justice overhaul, and the biggest investment in new jobs since World War II. She also promised a coast-to-coast effort to upgrade the country’s infrastructure, as well as programs to help small businesses.
And, likely in a bid to court moderate voters, she promised to pay for every piece of her agenda by collecting more taxes — a “fair share” — from Wall Street firms and major corporations. She said Democrats don’t “resent success” with such policies, but will “follow the money” in a system tilted toward powerful companies.
Making history in Philly
Still, Clinton did not ignore the history of the moment.
“Standing here as my mother’s daughter and my daughter’s mother, I’m so happy this day has come,” she said to thunderous applause. “Because when there’s no ceiling, the sky’s the limit.”
Recent polls likely helped Clinton determine she could not afford to focus solely on being the first female major party nominee.
An USC Dornsife-LA Times poll released earlier Thursday raised eyebrows, giving Trump a 7-point lead (47.4 percent to 40.1 percent, with a 95 percent “confidence interval”). The last version of the survey, released a week ago, had them tied. And a CNN/ORC poll released earlier this week put Trump ahead 44 percent to 39 percent, with a margin of error of 3.5 percent.
One of Clinton’s major weaknesses — and the same is true for Trump — are her high unfavorable ratings.
“Trump and Clinton each have certain leadership strengths that motivate people,” said Dana White, a leadership expert and consultant to major corporations. “But they also have qualities that can leave people cold and distrustful. As voters, we must understand their strengths and weaknesses, because poor leaders often cause most problems, while great leaders solve them.”
She appeared to try and improve those perceptions by touting her national security credentials.
She drew laughs from the crowd when she noted Trump’s declaration that he knows more about the Islamic State than do U.S. generals. “No, Donald, you don’t,” Clinton deadpanned, shaking her head and looking directly into the television cameras.
She said Trump’s willingness to get upset by tweets shows he cannot be trusted with the nuclear launch codes.
“The choice we face is just as stark when it comes to our national security. Anyone reading the news can see the threats and turbulence we face. From Baghdad and Kabul, to Nice and Paris and Brussels, to San Bernardino and Orlando, we’re dealing with determined enemies that must be defeated. No wonder people are anxious and looking for reassurance — looking for steady leadership.”
But one speech is unlikely to undo over three decades of turbulence in the public spotlight that includes a real estate scandal, and more recently, a self-inflicted error in the form of passing classified information on a private email server as secretary of state.
Where Trump at last week’s Republican National Convention painted the United States as crumbling under myriad foreign threats and a state of lawlessness at home, Clinton was less bleak: “America is once again at a moment of reckoning.”
“Powerful forces are threatening to pull us apart. Bonds of trust and respect are fraying,” she said, an apparent reference to a string of police-involved shootings that have rekindled centuries-old racial tensions. “And just as with our founders there are no guarantees. It’s truly is up to us. We have to decide whether we’re going to work together so we can all rise together.”
She warned that Trump has taken the Republican Party “a long way from morning in America to midnight in America.”
She quoted former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, saying of Trump’s message: “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” And she countered Trump’s talk of building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to stamp out illegal immigration by saying she would push for “a pathway to citizenship.”
Clinton also openly courted Sanders at the top of her speech. That’s notable because Democratic lawmakers and operatives say she cannot defeat Trump without an ample portion of the 13 million people who cast votes for Sanders during the primary season.
“I’ve heard you,” she said of Sanders, thanking him for his message of economic equality. “Your cause is our cause.”
One of the boxes Clinton and her speechwriters attempted to check was to deliver a stark contrast to Trump’s gloomy message. At least rhetorically, she seemed hit that mark on Thursday. But it is unclear whether moderate voters are more inclined to go for Trump’s call for change to save the country or Clinton’s upbeat call for unity to make it even better.
“We are clear-eyed about what our country is up against. But we are not afraid,” Clinton said Thursday night. “We will rise to the challenge, just as we always have.
She warned that Trump “is in the pocket of the gun lobby,” saying she has no intention to repeal the Second Amendment, which grants gun ownership rights. Rather, her intention to push policies that will keep guns out of the hands of those who might perform violent acts with them.
Political strategist John Feehery noted both parties’ conventions showed the “Republican and Democratic parties have unhappy factions.”
“Cynics like to say that there is not a dime’s worth of difference between the two major parties, but after looking at these two conventions, I don’t think anyone can say that anymore,” Feehery said. “The voters have a stark choice in November.”
That’s exactly what Clinton aimed to drive home with her acceptance speech — and, really, the entire Democratic convention. She’s already made some history, and while her 2008 primary with then-Sen. Barack Obama was a tough one, she now begins the fight of her life to make more.
Clinton’s speech charged up delegates who came to Philadelphia supporting her.
“Fired up. Ready to go. Ready to get home and get as many votes as I can for the next president,” said Lavon Bracy of Orlando.
“She laid out a plan. She was very specific in terms of what the issues are and what she wanted to do in the first 100 days. She wants to improve jobs. She’s going to work across the aisle. We’re going to get things done. She’s very specific in what needs to happen.”
Raj Singh of Riverside, Calif., was also impressed with the speech, but disturbed by scattered protests by Sanders supporters.
“I thought that some of them were disrupting the whole process but many of them came together after the first night,” Singh said, 80 percent them were fine. But 20 percent about that were still very vocal.”