How does one top a week of powerful speeches by Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama?
You don’t even try.
Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton did not deliver the best address of this convention or even the runner-up. Instead she gave a solid, substance-laden, and highly effective acceptance speech to her fellow Democrats. It never reached the rhetorical flights of fancy achieved by Obama the night before — but it didn’t need to. Clinton delivered rhetorical shot after rhetorical shot to Donald Trump as she laid out a clear vision for her presidency. She offered the nation an unabashedly liberal agenda — one surely intended to appeal to Bernie Sanders supporters — but in its wonkish, populist tone was eerily reminiscent of political speeches once delivered by her husband. She fully embraced the diverse and multicultural society America has become. But above all, she did the one thing that she and her party absolutely needed to do this week in Philadelphia — make clear the stark political contrasts between Clinton and Trump for the general election to come.
“Stronger together’’ has become the theme of Clinton’s campaign. In a country with the motto e pluribus unum, out of many one — it’s an idea that would have resonance in any presidential race.
But such words take on even greater significance against an opponent like Trump.
Indeed, throughout her speech, Clinton weaved the idea of togetherness and community — even mentioning that old ’90s nugget, “it takes a village” — into a clarion call for tolerance, but also shared sacrifice in pursuit of larger national goals.
“We will not build a wall,” she said, and then quickly pivoted to a line that would find a place in any Democratic acceptance speech: “Instead, we will build an economy where everyone who wants a good paying job can get one.”
“We will not ban a religion,” she said in direct rebuke to Trump, and then moved to a call for working “with all Americans and our allies to fight terrorism.”
This juxtaposition is indicative of the extent to which Trump has turned this campaign on its head. Who could have imagined a year ago that Clinton would need to point out that banning a religion — an exaggerated but not wholly inaccurate description of an actual policy proposal from her opponent — is something that Americans should not support.
But the move of the Republican Party to the furthest right-wing regions of the American political spectrum has given Clinton both a responsibility to confront Trump’s intolerance and a unique political opportunity — to embrace an ambitious and liberal set of policy proposals. Rather than run away from her failed health care plan from the 1990s, she used it as a political asset — an example of how Clinton is a fighter who will persevere, even after she’s being knocked down.
She attacked Trump for being in the pocket of the NRA. She talked about the need to fight climate change, the importance of immigration reform, new government initiatives on child care, family leave, and tuition-free college. She spoke of protecting LGBT and disability rights and even implored white Americans to put themselves “in the shoes of young black and Latino men and women who face the effects of systemic racism, and are made to feel like their lives are disposable.”
Once upon a time, Democrats would have been too fearful to talk about guns and big spending plans, too concerned about the potential for backlash to speak of gay rights and civil rights. Instead, and once again because of Trump’s intolerance and xenophobia, Clinton and the Democrats who gathered this week in Philadelphia were more than happy to talk about about the characteristic that most glaringly divides the two parties — diversity.
The contrast in skin color between America’s two political parties was on full display in Cleveland and Philadelphia. The GOP is an overwhelmingly white party, primarily white Protestants — as opposed to white ethnics. The Democratic Party is a true melting pot of white, black, brown, Asian, Muslim, and Jewish Americans. For a long time, the fact that Democrats were the voice of America’s minority communities was seen as a source of political weakness. As white voters, particularly in the South, increasingly migrated to the GOP, Democrats found themselves typecast and branded by Republicans as a party too responsive to the needs to minority Americans.
But at this convention, as Democrats have now done for several cycles, they not only embraced their many hues, they threw it back in Trump’s face. Indeed, the most electrifying and humbling moment of the DNC came before Clinton spoke when the parents of Humayun Khan, a young Muslim soldier killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq, spoke to the hushed hall. Khizr Khan, his father, talked of his son’s love of country, his heroism on behalf of his fellow soldiers, and the pain of his death. But his most pointed comments were for the GOP nominee.
“Donald Trump, you are asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you: Have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.” Khan then dramatically pulled a copy of the document out of pocket.
“Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending [the] United States of America,” he told Trump. “You’ll see, all faiths, genders, and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
It was a moment of devastating power — and one that cast the Democratic Party as the party of patriotism, of sacrifice, of equal rights, of liberty, and as the upholders of the Constitution.
These are, of course, traits traditionally associated with the GOP, but to a remarkable degree, the last four days in Philadelphia have turned these images on their head.
Even without Trump as the GOP nominee, the 2016 Democratic nominee was always going to play up the Democrat’s rainbow coalition, if only because of the political opportunity it presents. In a country where 30 percent of the electorate is nonwhite and overwhelmingly support Democrats, this is the party’s political ace in the hole.
But with Trump at the head of the GOP ticket, the urgency of defending a multicultural America has taken on much greater significance. It’s only slightly hyperbole to say that this election has become a race about national identity and what it means to be an American in the year 2016. It has become a race about tolerance vs. intolerance, hope vs. fear, diversity vs. nativism, optimism vs. pessimism, “stronger together’’ vs. “I can fix it alone.” A race with that kind of dynamic is one that Clinton can and should win — and over four days in Philadelphia, Democrats made it unmistakably clear that those are the stakes this fall.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.