Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hillary's Speech: Triangulating Brilliantly

There's lots of positive reax today about Hillary's speech - mostly praising her for "doing everything she needed to do" for Obama - even though she may not have corrected her harshest critiques about Obama. And yes, this was a party unity speech, not an Obama speech. And yes, I think it will help Obama, nevertheless.

But most of these questions miss the true significance of the moment. What was Hillary really trying to do with this speech? And did it work for her?

Look, everyone knows Hillary is saving herself for 2012, maybe 2016. The question isn't, did she do what she needed to for Obama - did she do what she needed to for 2012? The answer is an emphatic yes.

First point: if Hillary had shown anything less than an enthusiastic support of the candidate, her career would be over. No one likes a saboteur, and throwing any wrench into Obama's candidacy would have scuttled any chances of a national stage with the Democratic party. She needed to come off as not just a uniter - and she did a workmanlike and thorough fashion, addressing the problem of reluctant supporters head on and giving a convincing and enthusiastic endorsement. She also had to show people that she could personally rise above the bruising campaign, and convince supporters if she could do it, they could do it too, and that the choice for Obama was important. Her strategy in using the examples of real people, and saying that her campaign was about them, not her (a strategy lifted straight from Obama, by the way), did that brilliantly.

So she repaired relationships and convinced party elders that she cared about party more than personal ambition. Brilliant job, number one.

Next, she had to demonstrate that there were no hard feelings (Bill can have them, but not the future candidate). The way to do that was to lend her talents to the fight being staged by team Obama: to throw a few zingers McCains way. Without that, her speech would seem grudging, not sincere. The "No way, no how, no McCain" and the Twin Cities lines worked well - the best McCain zingers we've seen in the convention. But not so much that they would seem to overshadow the job of Biden, the VP. At the same time, she wanted to remind people that she was no light weight, she was a party powerhouse. Her job was to show she had the talent, but not overdo it, not audition for a slot already filled. In the end, even the Republicans were impressed, but she kept the zingers light and the analysis on point, even picking up Obama's theme of a "bottom up" campaign. Brilliant job, number two.

Third, and perhaps most important: she DIDN'T correct her criticisms of Obama, particularly the commander in chief line. Some (not the Obama team, but certainly Republicans) gripe about this. But what would have happened if she had said, "you know, I said he wasn't ready to be commander in chief, but..." but what? "I was just exaggerating for the sake of my campaign." Well, then no one would ever believe a word from her again. "He's really grown in the two months since June and I think he's ready now." Oh - yeah, that's convincing. That would label her either a panderer and lacking serious judgement. No, there was nothing she COULD say about this and stay believable. To have corrected those criticisms would have undermined her own credibility as a politician. And perhaps would not have helped Obama much, either. So she decided to keep her dignity and wisely avoid the subject (how about leaving that to Biden, tomorrow). Brilliant move, number 3.

Four. Perhaps this was not a move so much as a performance, she gave the speech of her life. She was poised, forceful, commanding, sharp, jocular, and interesting. She demonstrated on the podium that she was ready to lead and speak to a nation. And she was ready to place a nation's interests ahead of her own. Brilliant reading...brilliant skill.

Finally: Hillary's problem before Obama was that she seemed to be convinced that the nomination was her brithright. Obama took her down a peg. And she learned that lessen well. In the tenor of the speech, in the emphasis on issues and party loyalty over personalities, in the rousing and moving rendition and recognition of her power over a huge segment of voters within the party, she rehabilitated that sentiment. No one will claim, now, that if she was nominated, she hadn't earned it herself. Brilliant, all the way.

Did it work? Well, as an ex-Clinton supporter who became an Obama supporter who had written her off for the past eight months, I'd be open now to considering her again when the time came around again. So I'd say yes, it worked brilliantly.

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