Midway through Hillary Clinton’s discursive speech at last week’s Democratic National Convention, she gave a brief insight into her prospective strengths as a president – and her manifest weakness as a candidate.
“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.”
And how could they? Her quarter-century on the national stage has proved her to be capable and dedicated. But it has also proved her to be maddeningly diffident – and, as a consequence, an often dreary politician.
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As Donald Trump’s personality dominates the presidential race, Clinton has been strangely silent. At this writing, it has been 238 days since she last faced questions at a news conference. In contrast with Trump’s omnipresence at the Republican convention, Clinton spent much of last week at home in New York.
Amy Chozick of The New York Times, calling Clinton “a reluctant star of her prime-time production” and quoting Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack calling her an “introvert,” reported that, at the last minute, Clinton’s campaign scrapped “a laudatory” video about her.
Then there was the acceptance speech, a passable but unmemorable oration that showed every sign of being written by committee. In the hall, I had the feeling that Clinton was trying to enjoy giving the speech to an audience pretending to like it. The atmosphere was far less energetic than the one a week earlier for Trump’s fear fest in Cleveland.
Clinton’s supporters raised signs saying “Stronger Together.” I had the urge to wave one that said “Free Hillary.”
With 100 days until the election, it’s still not too late for Clinton to let ’er rip. She showed she was capable of it early last month when she delivered a devastating indictment of Trump. For a woman burdened by a reputation for being opaque, and facing a freewheeling foe, Clinton’s plodding speeches and avoidance of spontaneity compound her troubles. Clinton’s instinctive caution makes her look like a status-quo candidate – and this is not a status-quo election.
Clinton was preceded Thursday night by a dreary procession of Democratic officeholders and introduced by her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, who spoke slowly, softly and implausibly about how her mother attended “every soccer game, every softball game, every piano recital, every dance recital.”
After that soporific starter, Hillary Clinton had the convention crowd at hello – which is a good thing, because she couldn’t keep them. She roved among platitudes, denunciations of Trump, biography, policies, a call-and-response chant and even a mention of the musical “Hamilton.” One moment she said her “primary mission” would be to create jobs; the next she said her “highest priority” would be national security. From Bernie Sanders holdouts came various shouts and boos and cries of “no more war,” answered by chants of “Hill-a-ry.” But it amounted to background noise as Clinton clung to the words in her teleprompter.
Her best-received moments by far were her celebrations of women’s progress. Her biggest applause line of the night: “Tonight, we’ve reached a milestone in our nation’s march toward a more perfect union – the first time that a major party has nominated a woman for president.”
The delegates and guests also loved her anti-Trump barbs. “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons,” she said, also characterizing Trump as one of the “little men – the ones moved by fear and pride.”
Alas, she also let her speechwriters fill her big moment with pablum: “we begin a new chapter … build a better tomorrow … we can all rise together … lift each other up … the sky’s the limit … if you can dream it, you should be able to build it.”
Each time the crowd would get fired up by a put-down of Trump, they would be anesthetized a moment later by a laundry list of policy priorities: Social Security, Wall Street reforms, climate change, the economy, infrastructure spending, technology, clean energy, manufacturing, small business credit, student debt, college tuition, trade schools, women’s rights, workers’ rights, LGBT rights, civil rights, disability rights.
But you don’t fight Trump’s demagoguery with cliches and laundry lists. You do it by casting aside Clinton’s debilitating caution and joining what she called “the rough and tumble” of the campaign. There are 100 days left – and no time like the present to begin.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.