Four takeaways from Hillary Clinton’s first big speech of her presidential campaign on Saturday:
1. It’s been fairly clear for some time now that Hillary Clinton is more than content to run for president as a liberal populist. Saturday’s speech was further confirmation. From wrapping herself in the mantle of Franklin Roosevelt, the president who birthed to the nation the New Deal, to offering attack after attack against CEOs, hedge fund managers, and “special privilege for the few,” Clinton offered little sense that she is fearful of being portrayed as a liberal. Perhaps only history geeks and former speechwriters find this interesting, but Clinton referenced FDR’s 1936 acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and his call for a “rendezvous with destiny.” The thing about that speech is that it was not only perhaps the most radical speech ever given by Roosevelt; it’s one of the most radical political speeches in modern American history that offered a clear dividing line between the people and moneyed interests. Clinton’s speech was very much in that populist, us-against-them vein.
2. It wasn’t just Clinton’s rhetoric. She offered unabashed support for LGBT rights, for protecting reproductive rights for women, for making “preschool and quality child care available to every child in America,” for paid sick leave, for securing voting rights and overturning Supreme Court decisions that have brought billions of dollars in outside money into the political process, for helping those dealing with addiction, and even for consistent scheduling for workers so they can get “enough notice to arrange child care or take college courses to get ahead.” This was a speech that read like a liberal wish list of domestic priorities. And unlike her husband and practically every Democrat of the last 40 years, she didn’t talk about big government being the problem, apologize for wanting to ask the rich to pay their fair share, or back away from calling for new spending. Over the last several years, Democrats have made a decided and unmistakable move to the left. If her speech is any indication, Clinton is more than willing to follow the pack.
3. Clinton’s biggest personal asset would seem to be her foreign policy experience, which is far and away better than any of the Republican aspirants. Yet, as was the case with her initial announcement video earlier this spring, it received little mention in her kickoff speech. Just a few generic paragraphs on the need to be vigilant against alleged threats — and a little chest thumping about having been in the room when Osama bin Laden was killed. At some point, one would imagine that Clinton will take steps to emphasize her experience and knowledge on foreign policy, but it’s striking that a few months after some pundits were predicting international affairs would play an outsized role in 2016, Clinton clearly doesn’t agree.
4. Now the bad news. For all the positive elements of Clinton’s policy proposals and her Reagan-esque line about potentially being the “youngest woman president” in US history, this was a snoozer of a speech. It read more like a State of the Union than it did a campaign speech. There was no lift and little emotion in her largely cliché-ridden remarks. Clinton is, particularly when compared to the current president, not the most dynamic speaker. But she seemed especially flat today. But the thing is, I’m not sure it matters all that much. Democrats are already pretty excited about voting for someone who could be the first female president and, to some extent, projecting seriousness, experience, and policy expertise could play to her advantage. After eight years of polarizing, emotional, divisive politics, maybe a candidate who seems a little boring and a little calming is just the ticket.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.