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The best speech Hillary Clinton has ever delivered

There was wide agreement that the Democrats had produced a strong four-day infomercial, much better than the Republicans’ effort. 

Hillary Clinton accepting the nomination on Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
REUTERS/Mike Segar

Apparently I am out of step with many observers. Perhaps I suffer from Trump Derangement Syndrome. But I thought Hillary Clinton gave an effective acceptance speech last night in Philly, the best speech I ever remember hearing from Clinton, who is not known as a gifted orator.

How’s that for damning with faint praise?

On the PBS panel covering the convention, David Brooks called it a “below average speech,” even though he rated the overall convention as “astoundingly successful.” But as to Clinton’s big finale, he said: “I don’t know why she can’t project more humanity. Maybe a lifetime in politics does that to you.”

Brooks’ regular panel partner Mark Shields, who is the designated liberal of the duo and might be expected to like it better, said the speech had “no memorable lines; nothing to march to; no Demosthenes moment.” But he felt that, whenever the air seemed to go out of the speech, she would turn the subject back to the Donald Trump, the gift that keeps on giving, and that would revive the audience. “She’s not being compared to the Almighty,” Shields noted. “She’s being compared to the alternative.” (That’s a memorable line. But I gather it was an old saw.)

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There was wider agreement that the Democrats had produced a strong four-day infomercial, much better than the Republican effort last week. There were several emotional high spots in the hour leading into the Clinton speech.

Meanwhile, back to the show: The run-up to the Clinton speech seemed quite dramatic, times two. The planners assembled a list of presentations designed to exploit weaknesses in the Republicans’ – more specifically Mr. Trump’s – armor.

The immigrant parents of a Muslim soldier who died fighting in Iraq took the stage a couple of slots before Clinton. The heroic death of Capt. Humayun Khan was described. With his wife at his side, the bereaved father, Khizr Khan, who emigrated legally from the United Arab Emirates and is now a citizen, spoke with an accent and a facial expression that combined grief with rage:

If it was up to Donald Trump, [Capt. Khan] never would have been in America. Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims,” Khizr Khan said. He disrespects other minorities, women, judges, even his own party leadership. He vows to build walls and ban us from this country.”

Then Capt. Khan’s father went right after Trump, addressing him directly: “You sacrificed nothing and no one.” (Trump used a series of deferments to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War. When he was no longer eligible for student deferments, he failed a physical under slightly mysterious circumstances.)

It was powerful, and represented a bit of table-turner, since Republicans often dominate the flag-and-country-and-military element of a political campaign.

Khan also produced a pocket-sized U.S. Constitution from his pocket, held it up on camera and, speaking directly to the Republican nominee, said:

Donald Trump, you’re asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. 

I’ll be interested to see if Trump or his campaign makes any reply to this. As of this writing, he had not done so.

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Khizr Khan speaking Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention

Then a retired four-star Marine general named John Allen, backed by several other veterans of different ages, races and genders, took the stage. Until 2015, Allen led a group called The Global Coalition to Counter ISIL. Allen all-but shouted his eight-minute statement, which included this:

America will defeat ISIS. America will honor our treaty obligations. [Presumably a reference to some of Trump’s recent statements about possibly reneging on obligations to defend certain NATO allies.] We will lead and strengthen NATO… We stand before you tonight to endorse Hillary Clinton for the United States of America… We believe in her vision of America as a just and strong leader against the forces of chaos, and the forces of darkness… [Bernie Sanders backers, tried to interrupt, chanting “No More War,” but were drowned out by Clinton backers chanting “U.S.A., U.S.A.,” thereby stealing another common page from recent Republican conventions.]

With her as our commander-in-chief, our international relations will not be reduced to a business transaction, [also a response to some Trump comments] … Our armed forces will not become an instrument of torture. And they will not be engaged in murder or carry out other illegal activities. [These also apparently refer to some Trumpian remarks about using water-boarding and worse interrogation tactics, and about killing the families of ISIL members.]

You can watch that portion of the program here.

A little more from the speech by the headliner, Clinton, who thus became not only the first of her gender ever to win a major party presidential nomination but also the first to give a speech accepting such a nomination. Perhaps that’s slicing the first-ever baloney a little thin.

After a touching introduction by her daughter Chelsea, Clinton took the stage and held it for 55 minutes. She covered dozens of topics, alternating between reminiscences of her childhood, her career, the policies she would endeavor to pursue if elected, and especially attacks on Trump.

As Shields suggested, the Trump attacks were the most entertaining. With such divisive leadership as Trump represents, she wondered, could America live up to its motto – e pluribus unum — from many, one. She accused him of fomenting fear, and reminded the audience of the FDR line: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Instead of building a wall, she said, we should build a path to citizenship.

She especially ripped Trump for saying, in his own acceptance speech a week earlier, “I alone can fix it.” Clinton’s takedown went like this:

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“Don’t believe anyone who says: ‘I alone can fix it.’ Those were actually Donald Trump’s words in Cleveland. And they should set off alarm bells for all of us.

“Really? ‘I alone can fix it?’ Isn’t he forgetting troops on the front lines. Police officers and fire fighters who run toward danger. Doctors and nurses who care for us. Teachers who change lives. Entrepreneurs who see possibilities in every problem. Mothers who lost children to violence and are building a movement to keep other kids safe. He’s forgetting every last one of us. Americans don’t say: ‘I alone can fix it.’ We say: ‘We’ll fix it together.’”

She noted one of the elephants in the room, something that makes it harder to convince the country to leave the White House under Democratic control, which is that so much of the country is convinced that past eight years have been filled with national decline and failure. She replied:

“I don’t think President Obama and Vice President Biden get the credit they deserve for saving us from the worst economic crisis of our lifetimes.

“Our economy is so much stronger than when they took office. Nearly 15 million new private-sector jobs. Twenty million more Americans with health insurance. And an auto industry that just had its best year ever. That’s real progress.”

But, of course, she daren’t argue that the progress that’s been made is enough, and she assured listeners that she has ideas and policies that will continue the progress and make sure prosperity is more widely shared. The policy ideas she mentioned included:

If you believe that companies should share profits with their workers, not pad executive bonuses, join us.

If you believe the minimum wage should be a living wage and no one working full time should have to raise their children in poverty, join us.

If you believe that every man, woman, and child in America has the right to affordable health care … join us.

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If you believe that we should say “no” to unfair trade deals, that we should stand up to China, that we should support our steelworkers and autoworkers and homegrown manufacturers, join us.

If you believe we should expand Social Security and protect a woman’s right to make her own heath care decisions, join us.

And yes, if you believe that your working mother, wife, sister, or daughter deserves equal pay … join us.

Let’s make sure this economy works for everyone, not just those at the top.

We’ll see in the polls a few days from now whether the convention moved the needle much, but polls in August still don’t mean much, especially when they are almost certain to show a race that is still essentially tied.

For the sake of laying down a marker that we can compare against in about a week, the latest Real Clear Politics average of recent head-to-head Trump v. Clinton polls shows Trump ahead by 0.9 percentage points. Given that whatever bump the Democratic ticket might get out of its convention is not fully reflected in those polls, it would be reasonable to assume that if, by the end of next week, Clinton has an average lead of a couple of points, we can conclude that the combination of the two conventions didn’t change the race much.