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Hillary Clinton Embraces Being First

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Hillary Clinton has made history, and tonight she traced out how she’s going to try to make some more of it.

Victory speeches are easy. The news is good, the room is packed with enthusiastic supporters, the campaign controls the visuals, and the text is usually painstakingly massaged and managed, especially if there’s plenty of advance notice. And the Clinton campaign has known for weeks, maybe months, that tonight would be the big night (despite the AP’s off-message ability to call the nomination for Clinton on Monday, thanks to a few superdelegates who talked a bit too much).

So, yes, Clinton gave about as good a speech as she can.

The emphasis was interesting. Some “firsts” play down their accomplishments; Barack Obama, the first black president, often (although not always) took that path. Tonight, Clinton made her status as the first female major-party presidential nominee central to her message.

That’s probably smart. Her first task now is to unify the party, and most Bernie Sanders voters are feminists, even if they didn’t choose to support her so far. Another is to reach out to independents and weak Republicans who are put off by Donald Trump’s bullying tone -- many of whom are women.

And even for Democrats who support her, emphasizing the chance to elect the first female president might be a good way to develop more excitement. This is especially true for a candidate who, after all, mostly promises to continue the current administration’s policies, not a radical break. The status quo is rarely exciting, so Clinton reminds everyone that she can’t possibly be the status quo.

The rest of her speech emphasized community and cooperation, set up as a sharp contrast to Trump’s harsh and divisive rhetoric. Her tag line: “Bridges are better than walls.”  

Generally, candidates and their campaigns are least important in presidential general elections (compared to primary elections or down-ballot contests). Most voters wind up supporting their party’s candidate, even if they say they vote the person, not the party. Whether her polling numbers said Clinton was popular, as they did early in the campaign, or unpopular, as they do now, I’ve always thought she would perform as fairly close to a generic Democratic candidate in the general election. The only major question is whether a woman as a presidential candidate would be a small boost or a small penalty, or (as seems to be the case in lower-level elections) if it wouldn’t make much difference at all.

But make no mistake about it: Hillary Clinton is an extremely skilled politician. What she did tonight, giving a speech to supporters, is really where her talents are weakest. However, she’s an excellent debater, she handles one-on-one interviews well, and by all reports she’s good with voters in small groups. And no one earns the support of the vast majority of party actors during the invisible primary without being very good at politics.

We’ll see whether Donald Trump manages to run a competitive campaign or not. As of now, the best guess is he’ll be worse than a generic Republican -- perhaps far worse. I think Clinton had fewer high-level elected officials from her party opposing her before Iowa than Trump does now, weeks after his last competitor for the nomination dropped out. That may yet turn out to be important.

Whatever happens with Trump, however, expect Hillary Clinton to run a solid, competent, capable -- and very tough -- campaign. And if Republicans are smart, that’s what they’ll prepare for.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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