Michael Wolff: Hillary Anxiety Infects DNC as Night 1 Speakers Fail to Make Her Case

Bernie Sanders - H - 2016

Obama was giving a valedictory, Warren was asserting her bona fides for the future, Sanders claiming his place in the sun. In the end, Hillary was more than an afterthought but not the main motivation.

Few people have quite been on trial the way Hillary Clinton is now. As much as the American people might be held accountable for a Donald Trump victory, so will Hillary. As the data journalist Nate Silver’s seemingly hour-by-hour vacillations gave Trump a stomach-turning lead this week, the deep convention anxiety heading into Philadelphia all had to do with Clinton’s propensity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

There was, as the convention opened Monday, already a blame narrative. It was Trump’s agent Vladimir Putin (or is Trump Putin’s agent?) who had apparently leaked the telling emails and exposed the party’s bitchiness and doomed party chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (an unknown the day before, now a name that rolled off the tongue). And then there was the Bernie Sanders chorus, from the podium’s view inexplicable, irritating and an effective fifth column of Trump support.

The anxiety, of course, had precisely to do with Hillary and the resigned understanding on the part of all who had been familiar with her for so long — basically 25 years of knowing Hillary for most of the people at this convention — that she would instinctively, even in the most fraught circumstances, play it safe.

The first night only confirmed those worst fears. It was a convention trying to stubbornly adhere to all the rituals of political conventioneering, and, in its strict insistence on political propriety, risked becoming the contrast loser to the Republicans' weird show of the week before.

The real result of a convention — the bump, and how enduring it is — occurs somewhere out in television land, an impression left in the minds of people paying little or no attention to what is, for the vast media throng here, a way-too-immersive experience. So the calculation might fairly be to convey to voters—who, the conventional view goes, are just now starting to pay attention to the presidential campaign (but is it really possible that, after a year of Trump, anyone has missed it?)— a sense of something reassuringly dull. It’s just politics. You don’t have to pay close attention. We know what we’re doing.

Whereas the Republican establishment and a large segment of its office holders stayed away from the Cleveland convention, meaning the stage was dominated by wild cards, all the usual Democrats are in Philadelphia. The first seemingly thousand hours of the convention were, as in all Democratic conventions past, a dirge-like parade of members of Congress, selected for their swing state or ethnic status, or as a reward for diligent party duty, rather than oratory skills. Nothing out of the ordinary here, except the disconnect of everything else about this election year being out of the ordinary. Indeed, that seemed to be the insistent theme, to insist on and to try and re-impose on the larger apocalypse a sense of business as usual. That’s the emerging Hillary mantra: I’m better than all that by somehow being lesser than it. 

The Democratic Party proudly showed off its small bore parts, unmindful of its own self-caricature. There was the strong representation of its African-American wing. There was its growing Hispanic influence. There were the women (ideally not white women). The handicapped. The undocumented. The teachers. And, nostalgically and wistfully, the unions, with beefy red-faced union chiefs looking quite out of place.

And there were the sob stories … a young man full of promise and on his way to college until he got addicted to pain killers. (A curious difference between Democratic and Republican sob stories is that the Republicans, attacked in dark alleys by the undocumented, were actually sobbing. This was nutty but real hysteria.)

And there were the celebrities. The Democrats' A-list showbiz power was an intergalactic leap beyond the Republican D-list. And yet, the Democrats seemed somehow to bring their power hitters down to size. An old Paul Simon. A censorious Sarah Silverman. And a muffled Al Franken. (Franken himself is an interesting case, so much less imposing as a Senator than he was a writer and comedian).

The prime time line-up — beginning slightly before and trailing off slightly after the key 10:00 hour —consisted of the party heavy hitters, Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. In each instance, their main job was to endorse and sell Hillary Clinton. Of course, each, in his or her way, bore some obvious ambivalence about her. So the tension was how robustly and how credibly they might overcome their more natural feelings. 

And, of course, each rose to the occasion of preferring Hillary to Trump. And each tried to invest her with some personal feeling. But they also had other fish to fry. Obama was giving a valedictory, Warren was asserting her bona fides for the future, Sanders claiming his place in the sun. In the end, Hillary was more than an afterthought but not the main motivation.

At the end of the first night, there was yet no emerging new Hillary story, or astute rebranding. The one message seemed to be that she is selfless, which, not only will no one anywhere buy, but might be the kind of tonal obliviousness that makes people dislike her all the more.

Of course, the irrefutable point was ever-pointedly made, as against Donald Trump, even if the choice was Hillary, you had to make it. But so far, beyond that, there was little ground gained.