Hillary Clinton’s DNC Finale: What Worked About Her Plain-Spoken Approach

Hillary Clinton Democratic National Convention 2
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

There was nothing subtle about the pop songs that surrounded Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Those kind of songs are the bright, energetic extroverts of the music world, full of you-go-girl empowerment lyrics and as colorful and bouncy as the red, white and blue balloons that fell from the ceiling at the end of the evening.

The balloons fell on time, by the way. The audience more or less followed instructions and deployed giant cards they were given, cards that made the outlines of an American flag appear across the arena in Philadelphia after her speech ended. All week long, there were almost no glitches in the audio or video equipment; in contrast, last week at the RNC, it almost seemed, at times, as though the electronic gear was possessed by some kind of demon.

It’s the little things that mean a lot, and for sheer presentation, the DNC was far more slick — and that matters. Regardless of what you think of either convention on a political basis, there’s no question that, as a piece of showmanship, the Democratic convention was miles ahead of the RNC gathering.

Tonally, the conventions were worlds apart as well. It wasn’t just that the RNC convention was chaotic and glitchy; it felt, at times, like a dispatch from Mordor. Handed a great deal of ammunition to use, the DNC wasted little of it. The Republicans managed the political equivalent of leaving Ronald Reagan’s vision of “morning in America” on a park bench in the rain, so the Democratic party walked off with it, polished it and used it as their foundation. 

That doesn’t mean Clinton resisted the urge to take a few well-targeted swipes at her opponent. “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons,” she said. One can only wonder what heights (or depths) of histrionic rage that will bring out in Donald Trump.

But Clinton has her own challenges with the American public, something she acknowledged quite a few times in her speech. “Some people just don’t know what to make of me,” she said. And some will never have their minds changed. But she’s not the type to give up, as various speakers reminded the audience. As is her wont, she hammered away at unsexy, non-terrifying themes and ground out straightforward pitches full of foursquare words: safety, family, jobs, community, education, opportunity, cooperation.

It was a speech full of the kind of homespun turns of phrase you’d find Jimmy Stewart saying in a Frank Capra film. What was most effective about the speech is that Clinton stayed in her lane; she’s not a poet or a dreamer or a folksy politician imbued with innate charisma. The fact that she didn’t try to be any of those things and simply presented herself as a grounded, competent adult may have accomplished the task that pundits have been waxing on about forever — it humanized her. 

True, the people that hate her are still going to hate her, but the people who like her probably like her even more now. And even those who aren’t her biggest fans but who want a restrained, practical grown-up in the White House probably couldn’t find much to complain about.

All that said, Clinton rode the waves of crowd approval with skill, calibrating her voice and affect in tune with the words she was saying and the vibe in the arena. There were passages that led the crowd to chant “Hillary” and moments when her eyes shone with emotion. “It clears the way for everyone when there are no ceilings — the sky’s the limit,” she said at one point, and everyone knew she was referring to a glass ceiling. If working for issues like child care and paid leave meant she was paying the woman card, “Deal me in,” she said with a grin, and the crowd chanted the phrase along with her. There were moments in which she achieved liftoff and really connected with the crowd.

Was it the speech that the pundits had been bloviating about all day? Was it some magical blend of every great speech in history? Would it somehow melt the reservations of voters who were wary of her and break through the bias of those who simply can’t wrap their minds around the idea of a female president? Well, no, because no speech could have met those kinds of preposterous expectations.

It was wonky, it was dry in a few places and feisty and funny in others. Mainly, it was earnest, thorough and it got the job done. It was peak Hillary Clinton

Ever the pragmatist, Hillary Clinton knew she couldn’t match the kind of high-flying rhetoric President Obama used on Wednesday. So she went all in on policy and practicality. Trump doesn’t like talking about his plans to actually make change happen, but “I love talking about mine,” she said.

Before she took the stage, the Clinton life-story film created by TV veterans Shonda Rhimes and Betsy Beers mentioned, twice, via Morgan Freeman’s narration, the federal program she worked on that got eight million kids access to health care. All in all, Clinton’s speech recapped every other talking point on any national politician’s agenda: terrorism, campaign finance, Israel, women’s rights, gun violence, inequality and so on. The litany felt a little long at the end, but viewers could have little question where she stood on just about everything.

With a near-sigh, she even took on some of the most ingrained myths about her. No, she was not going to take away anyone’s guns. She would try to get sensible gun-control laws on the books, so that those who should never have them in the first place wouldn’t be able to buy them.

There were a few big themes threaded throughout the speech: The doubts people have about her, many of which she addressed head-on; the factors that have led many voters to embrace the populist rhetoric of both Donald Trump and  Bernie Sanders; and the idea of community and people helping each other out.

To those who felt abandoned, she said, “You know what? You’re right.” She talked a lot about job creation and making the very wealthy and corporations pay their fair share. A line about freeing students and families from debt finally got some applause from an otherwise unexcited Bernie Sanders. “I believe in science,” she said, almost laughing at the idea that this was something she needed to say in an advanced society. 

It was all very methodical, but then again, over-planning and relentless precision are often the most reliable tools that successful women have in their arsenals. For all her talk of cooperation, Clinton was out there alone on that stage; there are no other female presidential candidates that set examples for her to follow. Some like to criticize Clinton’s relentless pragmatism, but she turned that bug into a feature.

If Trump was going to present a nightmare vision of a nation overrun by unwanted immigrants and Muslims intent on harming Americans, Clinton and the DNC organizers would give stage time before the main event to a Latina sheriff who was the youngest of two migrant workers’ eight children. If Trump was going to paint a dark, declining portrait of America, the DNC would offer the rousing Rev. William Barber II and his stirring, inspirational words about America’s “deepest moral values.”

And the convention would give viewers, in the most moving moment of the night, the parents of a Muslim soldier who was killed in action. Khizr Khan, father of fallen soldier Humayun Khan, pulled out a pocket copy of the constitution and asked Trump a pointed question. “Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution? In this document, look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of the law.’”

Clinton is, in the words of a Sept. 11 first responder who spoke in her biographical film, a “workhorse” not a “show horse.” This workhorse knew she needed depth and dimension added to the cartoonish portrayals of her, so her daughter, Chelsea, introduced her. Chelsea talked about the woman who discussed dinosaurs with her when she was little and wrote her sweet notes when she was out of town. Chelsea was more soft-spoken and less glacially poised than Ivanka Trump last week, but the level of detail she offered about her mother made her speech heartfelt and convincing. 

Hillary extended Chelsea’s themes, linking herself to her own mother, an abandoned child whose life was saved by strangers who had mercy on her. Clinton talked about bad times and feeling low; she called Trump “odd”; she goofed on Bill, talking about their 45-year conversation and the fact that she’s occasionally “gotten in a few words along the way.”

“I sweat the details,” she said. Case in point: In her biographical movie, she was filmed in a kitchen, with a soft and elegant flower arrangement in the background. Nothing was left to chance.

After the week of chaos and fear in Cleveland, maybe that’s what people want.  

“Don’t believe anyone who says, ‘I alone can fix it,’” Clinton said, practical to the end. “We’ll fix it together.”