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Watching Hillary Clinton speak at the Democratic National Convention, I was reminded of one of those old war movies in which the wounded hero melodramatically says to his comrades, “Go on without me.”
The old complaint about the Clintons is that they only care about themselves. They’ll do anything to win. They never let go. Clinton turned that stereotype on its head in the centerpiece of her speech. “Were you in this campaign just for me?” she asked, and the correct answer, surprisingly, was no.
It wasn’t clear she was going to get there. She said some nice words about Obama in her speech—yeah, she was proud to support him, fine—but then she switched into a litany of issues she’d fought for and people who had placed their faith in her. It was all about her, it sounded like. But then, with that question, she pivoted. The litany she’d just recited became an argument for Obama instead of a list of reasons to vote for her.
Tuesday night, the Democrats celebrated Ted Kennedy. He was in Clinton’s shoes in 1980, after his hard-fought battle with Jimmy Carter. When he gave his convention speech, he mentioned Jimmy Carter once, congratulating him only in passing. Ronald Reagan never mentioned Gerald Ford in 1976. Hillary Clinton named Barack Obama more than a dozen times. Kennedy’s famous speech declared that the dream will never die. Clinton’s pitch was that the dream cannot live without electing Barack Obama.
Everything seemed to be at stake for Clinton. She said the issues she’d fought for all her life would wither if Obama was not elected. She linked Obama to continuing her husband’s legacy. “We did it before with President Clinton and the Democrats. And if we do our part, we’ll do it again with President Obama and the Democrats.” She told the story of her gender’s emancipation and the fight against slavery and then rolled the entire history of progress behind the Obama candidacy. Before that history of progress could continue, “before we can keep going, we have to get going by electing Barack Obama.”
But there was one big flaw in the pitch: Clinton never made the case that Barack Obama was ready to lead as commander in chief. That was her strongest argument against Obama during the primary—so strong the McCain campaign is recycling her ad about the president answering the phone at 3 a.m. Maybe Joe Biden is planning to address that issue for Obama, and Clinton needed to stay focused on convincing her supporters. Still, it felt like a hole.
Despite that dropped stitch, Clinton rehabilitated herself in her party. Rank-and-file Democrats could hardly have asked for more. Which may actually create a slight problem for Barack Obama. Did Clinton do too well? The reaction I got from the Clinton supporters who don’t like Obama is that her speech was the best proof yet that she should be president—or at least be No. 2 on the ticket.
We’ll know in a few weeks whether the 18 million who helped Clinton put cracks in the highest glass ceiling are interested in helping someone else—namely, Barack Obama—finally break through.