NEW YORK – Hillary Clinton, commentators agreed, needed to hit it out of the park with her speech Thursday night. She went into her convention either tied with Donald Trump or perhaps even slightly behind. Stalwarts of her party like the Obamas, Cory Booker, and her own husband put three runners on base by giving great speeches that offered compelling reasons for independents, and maybe even some Republicans, to vote against Trump. If she could hit a home run with her speech, she could put this game away. If she didn’t … well, at the very least, we were in for a long slog.
She didn’t homer. Loyal Hillary Clinton fans praised her for … “saying what she needed to.” That’s not praise you give a great speech. That’s praise you give sixth graders who have just turned in their first five-paragraph essay.
The speech itself was mostly blandly unobjectionable: cliche-ridden, barren of memorable lines, structured along the lines of a grocery list rather than an argument. But it was fine. It made no major mistakes, and it checked off a lot of stuff that needed to be said to one interest group or another. In the annals of political speeches, it will be laid to rest with all the thousands of other utterly forgettable things that have been said by politicians at our conventions.
But the delivery … oh, the delivery. It was double-plus ungood.
I wasn’t expecting much else, really. Clinton is not a great public speaker. When she gets into the meat of the speech, she falls into a cadence so unvarying that it feels like she trains with a metronome — Da-DAH-Da-DAH-Da-DAH. Because of this, she often ends up stepping on what ought to be big lines. She also seems to have no control over her voice, which starts rising as soon as she starts talking politics or policy and remains in the rafters throughout the rest of the speech. The reflective pause, the soft power of understatement, the warm chuckle … all seem to be beyond her power. The nonverbals are awkward; turn off the sound, and it looks like 60 minutes of someone who was just told that her vacation flight to Hawaii is being rerouted to Smolensk.
I’m told that in private she is warm, charming, genuine. Those are not the dominant impressions left by her speeches. I would imagine that small fortunes have already been spent on pricey public speaking coaches. None of them, apparently, have been able to unlock the human being inside for a larger audience.
That is a huge liability in an American politician. Our elections focus on individuals, personalities — specifically, how individuals present their personalities on TV.
Clinton is lucky to have an opponent who is also not very good at public speaking. But after Thursday’s speech, I’m not sure she’s lucky enough. At the beginning of the week, I echoed a point made by Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics: Clinton is so weak that against a candidate with very high unfavorable, she has turned this election into Generic (D) against Generic (R). With GDP growth coming in at 1.2 percent Friday morning, well below estimates, Democrats cannot afford to have that generic election; because when economic growth is weak, voters tend to turn against the party of the incumbent. Clinton must remind voters that all other things are not equal. She and Trump are not equally qualified to be president.
Democrats did a good job the previous week of pointing out Trump’s flaws. But they also need to sell Clinton at least a little bit. Her speech did not do that.
When I pointed that out on Twitter, some argued that the ability to deliver a speech well should not be what decides our elections. And perhaps so. Conservatives have been complaining for eight years, in fact, that if it weren’t for how well he delivers a speech, Barack Obama would never have been elected president. But whether it ought to be true or not, it is true.
Another response was that this observation was sexist, and I was policing Clinton’s tone because she is a woman.
Set aside for a moment that I, a woman, was being tone-policed for tone-policing a woman. The real problem is that people using this defense are hurting their cause.
Is the reaction to Clinton gendered? Some of it, yes. I think Trump probably has somewhat more leeway to sound angry and annoyed than Clinton does, because when men are angry and annoyed they are perceived as powerful, and when women are angry and annoyed, the reaction is akin to “Jeez, Mom, I’m going to clean up my room, all right?” As a Lady of a Certain Age myself, I do not like this. But there are many things in the world that I do not like. This does not make them one millimeter less true.
So ultimately my response to folks who complain that Clinton’s chances are hurt by sexism is: Okay, and? Even if you’re right, unless you have a secret plan to make this unfairness go away in the next few minutes, then why are you wasting time complaining about it when you have a political battle to win? Most people who hear this argument either agree with you, in which case it’s pointless, or disagree with you, in which case you are overwhelmingly unlikely to change their minds or their voting habits.
Sexism is a problem. It’s also a fact. Clinton and her supporters are going to have to deal with that fact. To label valid criticism as sexism does not qualify as “deal with.”
Because not all of the reaction to Clinton is gendered. Some of the best speeches at last week’s convention were delivered by women. First lady Michelle Obama hit at least a triple. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was great too. Some of the worst speeches, meanwhile, were given by men. She has a problem with public speaking. Not just with being an older woman, not just with sexism. With selling herself to an audience.
If there is any way to bring out the private, likable Clinton before a larger, public audience, then her campaign needs to find it quick.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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