As the primary season neared its conclusion on Tuesday night, the top news story was not the first woman in American history passing the arithmetic threshold to become the presumptive presidential nominee of a major political party.
She probably was not surprised, and she may not have minded. The moment was compromised by insider chatter about why the magic number news had surfaced the night before in an AP story and whether it would affect turnout and was intended to do so. Besides, the competing story was of great benefit to her candidacy.
That, of course, was the wrench (hell, half a tool box) thrown into the campaign of the other party’s presumptive nominee. His campaign organization remains unusually small. His ethnically charged accusations of bias against the judge presiding over the class action federal law suits against his eponymous “University” forced Republican leaders to issue repudiations. His overall behavior since clinching the nomination has elevated doubts about whether his commitment to his business brand exceeds his sense of obligation to civil society and the Republican Party.
Together, the two news narratives put these questions in mind as the night’s speeches approached:
What would Clinton say to Sanders supporters and other Democrats and Independents reluctant to, if not recoiling at, online invitations to click “I’m with her?”
Would Sanders accept defeat?
And would Trump find a way to act presidential while remaining consistent with his bad boy persona?
Donald Trump opened with a stack of reassurances: “We’re only getting started and it’s gonna be beautiful…. We’ll have real change in this country, not Obama change…. I will never ever let you down.” (Almost worthy of a Rickroll! Which the hyperlink explains without performing.)
He invited Sanders supporters to join his campaign, saying Bernie is right about the terrible trade deals. We’re going to have fantastic trade deals, he promised. You’re gonna see some real good things happen. I’m going to be America’s champion. Politicians fail to deliver, the system is totally rigged to keep them in power, and I beat a rigged system.
Then Trump struck at his opponent…and her spouse. “The Clintons have turned the politics of personal enrichment into an art form for themselves….Hillary Clinton turned the State Department into her private hedge fund.” They sold access, favors, and government contracts. Trump teased a major speech next week in which he would make a detailed case against the Clintons.
He devoted a block to what might be called the Trump Doctrine but the candidate prefers to label “America First.” As he uses the phrase, it means no entry in foreign conflicts unless that makes us safer as a nation. It’s the opposite of Hillary’s foreign policy, which has inflamed Middle East and set off a two-continent immigration crisis. It means coal. And it means protecting the wages and security of American workers, tenth or first generation, against illegal immigration.
A voice in the audience yelled “No PPP” and that inspired Trump to sneak in a bathroom joke, punning on the letters PP. He corrected the acronym to TPP, for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal he and Bernie and Hillary have all opposed.
Trump delivered a scripted and seemingly rehearsed speech. There were no extended digressions, no rambling, no mention of the wall, the ban, the deportation, or the judge.
Neither he nor any of his family members lined up behind him seemed to be having a good time. That much he had in common with the Republican leadership.
Hillary Clinton did not wait for the California polls to close or east coast prime time to elapse before commemorating her achievement. The show opened with a pretentious video in which a silhouetted Clinton strides out of backstage shadows to take her place in the cavalcade of the woman’s movement.
Then she strode out live, to Sara Bareilles’s “Brave,” dressed in white.
We are all standing under an actual glass ceiling, she noted, in an obligatory reference to her concession speech eight years earlier. “But don’t worry, we won’t break this one.”
She spoke of Seneca Falls, women and men uniting in 1848 to issue a “Declaration of Sentiments” to the world that launched feminism.
She congratulated Senator Sanders, adding that “Our debate has been good for the party and America.” She seemed to road-test another slogan: “Stronger together.”
To rousing and prolonged cheers, she repeated her broadside from last week that “Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit to be Commander-in-Chief.” Make America Great Again, she added, “is code for let’s take America backwards” and she executed a call-and-boo response segment culminating in lines from the Pledge of Allegiance.
Clinton paid tribute to her mother, “who taught me never to back down from a bully.” “This is our moment to come together,” she concluded, inviting viewers to join the campaign.
Clinton was impressively understated in her performance. The text and staging attested to a presidential campaign in high gear.
By the time Bernie Sanders spoke at nearly 2 a.m. eastern time it was evident that the California primary vote was a double-digit romp for Clinton. But he would characterize the outcome as getting closer, indicative of the defiance and denial that shot through his speech.
He ascended a crowded stage to a long and loud ovation, and he basked in it as he deserved. “We’re not a fringe campaign,” he asserted: 22 state caucus and primary wins, ten million votes, and the loyalties of a large cadre of young people. They have joined him in a fight for “social, economic, racial, and environmental justice,” a nifty umbrella phrase repeated later. “Our vision will be the future of America…. We will not allow right-wing Republicans to control our government….The American people will never support a candidate whose major theme is bigotry.”
“But our vision is more than defeating Donald Trump, it is transforming our country.” Enormous cheer. “We will end a corrupt campaign finance system.”
Sanders delighted the audience by telling them he was headed to Washington DC, site of the last primary, “to continue the fight” and then on to Philadelphia for the convention. In passing, near the end, he mentioned that he had received “a very kind call” from Obama (cheers and boos), and “a gracious call” from Clinton and that he congratulated her (mostly boos, but not full-throated).
Generally in American politics, it is the loser who makes the concession call to the winner. But not on this night in this instance.
“What we believe is what the majority of the American people believe. The struggle continues.” And Sanders exited to David Bowie’s “Starman.” Let the children lose it, let the children use it, let all the children boogie.