Rhetorical Recap: Clinton Wins the Convention Fortnight

Fourth Night of the Democratic National Convention, July 28 2016

I’ll cut to the chase: I give Clinton’s speech a B but Clinton’s convention an A.  I do so not just as a rhetorical analyst but a purveyor of social media analytics.

We’re a few days away from the poll data that will provide evidence about the net bounce, that is, which candidate gained the most prospective voters after the conventions. But here are two data points to consider in the meantime, courtesy of PEORIA Project Chief Data Scientist Michael D Cohen.  They indicate that Clinton beat Trump on Twitter, his home turf in the media world as it were. 

First, followers, an indication of interest:

@realDonaldTrump picked up 159,536 followers during the Republican convention.

@Hillary Clinton picked up 191,767 followers during the Democratic convention. 

Second, retweets, a form of instant participation in a campaign, in as much as the retweeter is sharing a campaign message with other people:

During their respective conventions @hillaryclinton tweets were retweeted 741,504 times, compared to 470,128 retweets for Trump.

In short, among people with high enough interest in politics to engage with the campaigns on Twitter, Clinton dominated.  This comes after more than a year of Trump dominating everyone on Twitter (and many other media channels).

Now to the speeches:

If you thought you would see at long last the inner, real, authentic Hillary Clinton because, as the pundits said, she needed to humanize herself, I believe you did.  She’s a policy wonk at heart. 

In strict performative terms, her acceptance speech came as anti-climactic.  That owes more to the stratospheric quality of some of the speeches before her than to the workwoman quality with which she delivered her address.  (If “workwoman” is not in the lexicon, perhaps it should be.)

As one unknown but symbolically freighted American after another took the podium, the Democratic appropriation of patriotic values and story arcs long associated with Republicans and Americans as a whole, begun so dramatically on the previous night, gained heft and force.  The cumulative impact sought would ostracize Donald Trump as—irony intended—a dangerous alien to the American way.  

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a self-described conservative preacher, exhorted the audience to “shock this nation with the power of mercy.”

Khizr Khan, the father of a fallen Muslim American soldier who emigrated from Pakistan, offered to lend Trump, who has “sacrificed nothing and no one,” his copy of the Constitution.

Ret. General John Allen, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, yelled like a drill instructor.  He dressed down Trump on behalf of dozens of sober-looking veterans standing behind him, in what was yet another tableau of a diverse yet united nation. Allen served with Clinton, knows her, supports her.  He promised that “We will oppose and resist tyranny.  And we will defeat evil.  We will defeat ISIS.” And “America will honor our treaty obligations.”  And “WE MUST CHOOSE HOPE!.”  “USA” chants, flags and placards galore filled out the soundscape.

Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, a son of Mexican immigrants, thanked the invisible persons at work in the arena as janitors, food servers, and guards.  You know, those people.  Our people, he claimed.

Katy Perry, the opposite of an unknown person, appeared. I am tired of hearing her anthems, but I was charmed by her opening remarks about her background and commitment to Hillary. 

Chelsea Clinton talked tendentiously and laughed nervously, her oral equivalent of “um” or “like.” I did not think much of her speech. Then again, I have no idea what it is like to do anything, let alone speak before tens of millions of people in a pressure packed situation, just five weeks after giving birth. And she knocked down the post-bio introductory line. 

The bio, directed by Shonda Rhimes and narrated by the Voice of Truth and Goodness, Morgan Freeman, played a theme that Hillary Clinton would develop in her address: while “we weren’t there and can’t know,” we can believe that she delivered.  In other words, judge her on her actions and their results, not on some sense of authenticity.  “This is the woman,” it concluded.  

Finally, finally, Hillary Clinton, dressed in a suffragette white pantsuit, walked onto the stage to accept her party’s nomination for president. 

She distributed the requisite thanks and tributes to top speakers, including Bernie Sanders, who did not smile.

Clinton touched landmark bases in US history. She characterized the 1776 signing of the Declaration in Philadelphia as a “stronger together” story of compromise and courage.  She quoted FDR’s “fear itself” line as a corrective to what she called Trump’s “Midnight in America” vision, that moniker of course being an unfavorable comparison with Reagan’s “Morning in America” ads.  Reagan was thereby claimed by the Democrats again, as Obama had done the night before, and as former Reagan official Doug Elmets did earlier in the evening.

More contrasts: no wall, a path to citizenship; no ban, we’ll defeat terrorism with our allies; no “I alone can fix it,” “we’ll fix it together.”

Clinton accepted the party nomination well into the speech, an interesting twist on the norm.

She opened her self-disclosive section with the line “I get it that some people don’t know what to make of me. So let me tell you.”  The kimono opened.  “My family were builders of a different kind” than her opponent.  As always, she grew emotional talking about her mother.  She fell back into the groove of the familiar autobiographical anecdotes and résumé items.

Not very remarkable, but the real Hillary Clinton surfaced in these two sentences:

CLINTON: “To drive real progress, you have to change both hearts and laws. You need both understanding and action.”

By her approach to policymaking you shall know all of her soul that you are going to get. She listens to people such as those who spoke during the convention. Understanding their concerns, absorbing their facts, she then interacts with other political decision-makers to change policies to help people in better ways for better purposes.  “Better,” in her view, tends to be more hawkish than Obama and much more than Sanders, about the same on social issues, and closer to Obama than Sanders on economic issues.

The preceding paragraph may look ordinary, even banal.  Yet a main purpose of the convention was to substantiate through testimonials that this ideology is Hillary Clinton personified. It was accomplished.

A nice line commemorated the historic moment of her nomination: “When there are no ceilings the sky’s the limit, so let’s keep going.”

After shout-outs to Obama and Biden, there were no reaction shots. The two men were not there.  The page had turned.

Clinton was interrupted repeatedly by shouts of protests. Her organizers were ready. The mics were in the right places and the majority of attendees out-shouted the protesters.

Of all the issues discussed, Clinton showed the most passion discussing guns.

She uttered not a word about email security.  She expressed no contrition, which I expected, and offered no policy ideas, which I think would have been appropriate and valuable.

And onto the campaign bus the new ticket went.



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