Try a little fear.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Democrats Aren't Making Their Strongest Case for Clinton

Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a senior editor of National Review and the author of “The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life.”
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Bill Clinton took on a daunting task on the Democratic convention’s second night: convincing Americans who have been watching his wife for a quarter-century that their picture of her is mistaken, that she is not the candidate of the status quo but “the best darn change-maker” he has ever known.

He told us about Hillary Clinton’s parents and her old friends from Illinois. He told us about how she put liner paper in all the drawers in Chelsea’s Stanford dorm room. He even told us about when her water broke. He wanted to get Americans to see her as a human being, and an admirable one at that, and to erase the negative caricature that Republicans and many of Bernie Sanders’s supporters have drawn over and over.

That’s the speech he had to give. He could hardly give a policy-heavy speech like the one he delivered at the 2012 Democratic convention, because this time he was talking about his wife.

But I don’t think he met the admittedly formidable challenge before him. He talked at great length about their relationship, but omitted the key fact about it that everyone knows: that he has been unfaithful to her. He could have said, just once, that Hillary had put up with him more than he deserved. It would have been a powerful moment that lent credibility to everything else he said. He would have sounded like someone telling the truth, even the painful parts, instead of someone making a political sale.

But for whatever reason — pride? — he didn’t do it. Instead, he skipped entirely over 1998, a year of American politics dominated by his affair with Monica Lewinsky and his lies about it.

And even if Clinton’s speech had been successful on its own terms, they may not have been the right terms for her campaign.

The Democrats in Philadelphia are giving the impression that they don’t quite know how Donald Trump has gotten ahead of Clinton in the polls, or how to take him on. Should they say that America is doing much better than Trump says? Or that the state of the union is parlous and Clinton is the one who can make the necessary changes? The problem with the first strategy is that Americans are already deeply dissatisfied. The problem with the second, quite apart from Hillary Clinton’s own image as the establishment personified, is that she is obviously and inescapably running as a candidate of continuity with a two-term incumbent.

But public opinion also presents Clinton with an opportunity. Most Americans dislike her, and most Americans dislike Trump, leaving a lot of voters in the middle who dislike both.

But most Americans think she is qualified to be president, and he isn’t. So instead of trying to get Americans to like her or the status quo better, Democrats can try to get voters to act on their pre-existing view of the candidates’ qualifications. Instead of trying to make voters happy, that is, they could try to make them scared: scared of the consequences of a Trump presidency.

That’s the case Hillary Clinton needs this convention to make. With the Democrats having spent the first half of it flailing, it’s increasingly clear she’ll have to do it herself.

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

To contact the author of this story:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net