Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Details matter

Before she took the stage last night to accept the Democratic nomination for president there was every indication that Hillary Clinton’s speech would be a very personal one. Becoming the first female nominee is a historic achievement as well as an individual one. Plenty of pundits and doubtless some of her staff had been advising Clinton to use the speech as a chance to reintroduce herself to America, a chance to strike a more human tone before an electorate that often treats her with ambivalence.

It is advice she entirely, and wisely, ignored.

Instead Clinton used last night’s speech not as a chance to dwell on folksy anecdotes (although there were some) but to deliver a point-by-point takedown of the Republican campaign. With the primary process formally concluded the speech served as an insight into how the Clinton campaign is thinking about its playbook against Donald Trump between now and November.

His tone and temperament were the first the first to come under fire. Repeating the line that ‘none of us can fix a country totally alone’, Clinton targeted the egoism of Trump’s speech at the RNC the week before. But a sharper barb came with her quotation of Jackie Kennedy, who in a letter to Khrushchev in 1963, raised the prospect of future wars ‘started by little men … moved by fear and pride’. It is the type of remark sure to provoke an ugly response from Trump and it seems that goading him into overreaction is set to be part of the campaign plan. To me, though, one of the most effective lines of attack, and one I expect to see more of, was to remind the viewers of how Clinton’s history of work on disability rights contrasts with Trump. It is for good reason that footage of him mocking disabled New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski has featured in repeated Clinton campaign ads.

The somewhat unexpected inclusion of a policy section in the nomination speech was also deployed to undercut the Republican candidate. In a version of her earlier argument against Bernie Sanders, Clinton spoke of why details matter when it comes to making change happen, citing specific proposals on infrastructure and vocational education. Much of this is tactical. The emphasis on affordable college tuition is essential to win back Sanders supporters. Calling for more support for small business plays even better when you are running against a tycoon with a fondness for bankruptcy. But talking policy also seems to be a better way to contrast with Trump’s wilful ignorance than a repeated citing of her qualification for office.

The final wave of attacks in the speech were aimed at Trump’s tendency to speak for only one part of American society. He would be a president in the pocket of the gun lobby, she told us, one unable to walk in the shoes of young black and Latino citizens or to restore trust between communities and the police. If the Democratic national convention had a theme, this was it. In just one example, while delegates at the RNC cheered the acquittal of an officer implicated in the death of Freddie Gray (the 25-year-old African American killed by Baltimore police last year) the DNC hosted the Mothers of the Movement to chants of ‘black lives matter’.

Indeed, while much of the convention has focused on glass-ceiling-smashing nature of Clinton’s candidacy it has just as often presented the nomination of the first female candidate as part of the country’s ongoing transformation. Images of the civil rights struggle have repeatedly appeared on the big screen in the convention hall and the most moving celebration of American multiculturalism came just minutes before Clinton’s speech as the father of Captain Humayun Khan – an American Muslim solder killed in Iraq – rebuked the narrowmindedness of the Republican nominee.

The meaninglessness of polls at this stage notwithstanding, the improvement in Trump’s numbers is making many Democrats nervous. And attacking Trump on multiple fronts like this has its drawbacks. I argued a few weeks ago that the campaign would do well pick one line of argument and stick with it, especially given the difficulties Clinton faces getting a hearing by the voters. But plenty of political friends were starting to see the biggest risk in Clinton running a safety-first campaign emphasising her experience and the continuity with the Obama administration, a strategy fraught with danger given the current mood. On the evidence of last night’s takedown of Trump this is not the approach Clinton intends to take.


Charlie Samuda is a former adviser to the Labour party and is studying at the Harvard Kennedy School. He tweets @CharlieSamuda

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Charlie Samuda

is a master in public policy candidate at Harvard Kennedy School. He tweets @CharlieSamuda

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