In evaluating this speech, I think it’s important to view it within the context of the whole convention night. This night was the first night the Democrats put together a lineup that had even a passing chance of connecting with the current mood of the country, even though it was somewhat lacking in big names. It was serious, it focused on national security, it landed brutal blows against Trump.
The speech by Khizr Khan, who will be a household name tomorrow, was probably the highlight of the whole convention for the Democrats. This was followed by the former commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan who gave a rousing endorsement of Clinton’s policy.
Of course, being the Democrats, they followed all this up with Katy Perry, who came on stage to basically say, “I don’t know crap about crap, but guess what, I get to vote too and I’m voting for Hillary!” followed by two poorly performed musical performances. The Democrats then decided that since Ivanka Trump introduced Donald, Chelsea Clinton should introduce Hillary, and this was a mistake. I don’t want to pick on Chelsea Clinton, but let’s just state the obvious: it was the opposite of a rousing introduction.
Clinton’s actual speech was… well, it’s difficult to know what to say about it. I feel like I should grade all Hillary Clinton speeches in exactly the same way I grade Bartolo Colon’s at bats – which is to say, if she can avoid looking like an alligator attempting to scratch a goiter in a particularly troublesome spot in his back in the process, it was a rousing success.
Was this a well-delivered speech, objectively? No. That is simply not a bar that Hillary Clinton is ever going to clear. You know what, though? Neither of the George Bushes were especially good at giving speeches and between them they served for twelve years in the oval office. In some elections, you don’t have to be a fantastic orator, you just have to be good enough to get the job done against the opponent you’ve been assigned.
Did Hillary accomplish that? Too early to tell. There were some brutally effective moments in the speech. Her line about the Dallas PD shootings was objectively better than Trump’s – and her praise of the people who signed up to become police officers after the shootings struck exactly the right tone. Her attacks on his temperament were serious without going over the top. As she got into the speech, her delivery improved and she seemed to find her stride.
But here is the conflict of this speech. If you read just the text of this speech, it’s better than a good speech, it’s a borderline great speech. But there were a few problems that hampered the execution. The first was the organization of the speech itself. In a moment where Hillary Clinton absolutely had to shine in order to curtail Trump’s rise in the polls, her speech started with a lengthy recitation of things that had already happened during the Democrat convention. This is the world we live in – if the first five minutes of your speech are boring, a lot of people will tune out and assume your whole speech is boring.
The second major problem, of course, is Hillary Clinton herself. I think Hillary stayed out of her own way much more than she has in almost every major speech she has ever given. I think she made a conscious effort to modulate her tone and avoid the relentless angry yelling that is the closest approximation to human emotion that she usually can manage (and, to be honest, was the sole emotion displayed by Trump last week). But what we learned is that a modulated Hillary might not be as aurally offensive as normal Hillary, but she still barely scrapes “acceptable” as a public speaker or campaigner.
I don’t know where this is all going to end up. It seems like an existential moment for the country, and not in a good way. The choice that was painted tonight was one between a serious person with bad ideas and a reality television star with bad ideas. I have no idea what America will choose and I don’t think it reflects well on us that these are (apparently) the two best available choices, as per the voters of the two major parties in this country.
I think Hillary helped herself as much as possible last night. I just don’t know that it was all that much.