— How do you solve a problem like Hillary?
With Bernie Sanders packing his bags for Burlington, and the party’s presidential nomination finally, firmly settled (even if the last few Sanders stragglers protesting in the press tent might disagree) the attention of the Democratic National Convention turned Wednesday to the unenviable task of trying to persuade the American people to vote for a nominee whom 55 percent of them don’t like and 68 percent of them don’t trust — and who is actually trailing Donald Trump in the polls right now.
Monday and Tuesday’s marquee speakers did their darnedest. Michelle Obama presented a Mother-in-Chief’s case for Clinton. It got rave reviews. Bill Clinton’s speech was “part grandfatherly musings, part nostalgic love story, part family history, part political memoir” — the kind of testimony that only a husband (who also happens to be the greatest political talent of his generation) could deliver.
But on Wednesday night, the DNC took it up a notch, trotting out four of the biggest names in American politics — back to back — to vouch for Clinton: former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine. Vice President Joe Biden. President Obama. And all of them, to one degree or another, had the same message for the millions of Hillary skeptics watching at home:
Get over it. We did.
“Hillary’s got her share of critics,” Obama said. “She has been caricatured by the right and by some on the left. She has been accused of everything you can imagine and some things that you cannot. But she knows that’s what happens when you’re under a microscope for 40 years.”
“That’s what happens why you try,” he continued. “That’s what happens when you’re the kind of citizen Teddy Roosevelt once described [as] someone ‘who is actually in the arena.’
“Hillary Clinton is that woman in the arena.”
Bill Clinton was never skeptical of Hillary; he spoke at length Tuesday about falling in love with her at first sight. But most people don’t seem to feel that way. “[T]here’s just something about her that pisses people off,” Washington hostess Sally Quinn said 20 years ago. “This is the reaction that she elicits from people.”
And that was the subtext of Wednesday’s big speeches. Bloomberg, Biden, Kaine and Obama were all skeptics once — just like you. Obama called Clinton “likable enough.” In 2008, Kaine could have endorsed Clinton; he chose Obama instead. Bloomberg considered running against Hillary in 2016. So did Biden.
But none of them are skeptics any more (at least not in public). Now they call themselves converts — and they spent Wednesday night reaching out and trying to convert others as well.
“There are times when I disagree with Hillary,” said Bloomberg. “But whatever our disagreements may be, I’ve come here to say: We must put them aside for the good of our country.”
To be sure, a big part of the argument was Trump. The attacks were relentless. Bloomberg described him as a “dangerous demagogue.” Kaine called him “a slick-talking, empty-promising, self-promoting, one-man wrecking crew.” At first, Biden claimed Trump “has no clue about what makes America great.” Then he corrected himself: “Actually he has no clue. Period.” The crowd lost it. And Obama gave a little chuckle when the subject came up.
“The Donald is not really a plans guy,” the president said, still grinning. “He’s not really a facts guy, either.”
According to them, any other candidate would look good in comparison. As Obama put it, “the choice isn’t even close.” And yet each speaker made the case, in his own way, for why he’d come around to Clinton — and why the United States should, too.
Obama was, as usual, the most persuasive.
“You may remember,” he began, “that Hillary and I were rivals for the Democratic nomination. We battled for a year and half. Let me tell you, it was tough — because Hillary was tough. I was worn out. Every time I thought I might have had the race won, Hillary came back stronger.” Obama went off-script for a moment, turning to a line he’s been using this year to acknowledge the obstacles women can face when they run for office: “She was doing everything I was doing, but just like Ginger Rogers, it was backwards and in heels.”
“But after it was all over, I asked Hillary to join my team,” he continued. “She was a little surprised. Some of my staff was surprised. But ultimately she said yes, because she knew what was at stake was bigger than either of us.”
“For four years, I had a front-row seat to her intelligence, her judgment and her discipline. I came to realize that her unbelievable work ethic wasn’t for praise. It wasn’t for attention. She was in this for everyone who needs a champion.”
The truth, of course, is more complicated. It always is. But conversion stories are powerful things, and they were told throughout the night, either implicitly or explicitly, as a way to show that the skeptics are wrong. If the skeptics only got to know Clinton, they would realize, as Obama, Biden, Kaine and Bloomberg have, that she isn’t untrustworthy, or inconsistent or opportunistic, or whatever.
Biden was once bitter about Clinton boxing him out of the 2016 race. But his words told a different story.
“Everybody knows that she’s smart,” he said. “Everybody knows that she’s tough. But I know what she’s passionate about. I know Hillary.”
Kaine once considered Hillary an inferior candidate. (He was one of the first politicians to endorse Obama in 2007, calling it a “very simple decision for me” and implying that Clinton was too divisive to earn his support.) But his words told a different story.
“Hillary Clinton and I are compañeros del alma,” Kaine said. “We share this belief: Do all the good you can and serve one another. … That’s what I’m about. That’s what you’re about. That’s what Bernie Sanders is about. That’s what Joe Biden is about. That’s what Barack and Michelle Obama are about. And that’s what Hillary Clinton is about.”
And Bloomberg was once described as “turned off by what he views as Clinton’s changing of positions for political expediency.” But his words told a different story.
“Now, I know Hillary Clinton is not flawless; no candidate is,” he said. “But she is the right choice — and the responsible choice — in this election.”
On Thursday night, Clinton herself — not the caricature — will step to the podium in the middle of Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, and deliver the most important speech of her life. The question now is whether she can prove the skeptics wrong and Wednesday’s big-name speakers right. Whether she can convert a few more people. And whether she can show, as Roosevelt put it, that “it is not the critic who counts” but rather “the man” — or woman — “who is actually in the arena.”