Is This the Campaign Hillary Clinton Wanted?

On the eve of the election, she was a lesser star at her own event.

Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton stands onstage with Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Jon Bon Jovi during her Monday night rally on Independence Mall in Philadelphia.

Kena Betancur/AFP/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA—It’s not easy to follow Barack Obama. It’s not easy to follow Michelle Obama. It’s not easy to follow Bill Clinton, or Bruce Springsteen, or Jon Bon Jovi. (That last part was a joke—it’s not too hard to follow Jon Bon Jovi.) But that was what Hillary Clinton had to do on Monday night in Philadelphia before the tens of thousands of supporters on Independence Mall who showed up for what was originally billed as Clinton’s final rally of the campaign, before the campaign slapped on a midnight Raleigh, North Carolina, event. It was a night of public personalities whose crowd-pleasing abilities dwarfed her own, a final burst of star wattage.

Was this the campaign Hillary Clinton wanted?

On net, sure. Hillary Clinton is driven to win, and by drawing as her opponent Donald Trump, the worst presidential nominee in forever, she’s positioned to do so Tuesday, barring a comprehensive national polling error. Being a near-lock for office from the second your opponent clinches his nomination is a pretty great thing. But Trump was never about issues; he was about Trump, and he pulls everything with which he comes into contact—New York real estate, Atlantic City, NBC’s prime-time lineup, and now a presidential campaign—into a luridly unfolding story about himself. That made the campaign a matter of personalities: never her most comfortable suit and, unfortunately for civic life, his favorite one.

The star power of Trump’s campaign is centralized with the candidate; with Clinton it’s dispersed to surrogates. As the Clinton campaign announced that first 20,000, then 30,000, then perhaps a 40,000 people were showing up for the Independence Mall rally Monday night, Trump supporters and other Clinton skeptics joked that what those people showed up for was a free Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen concert.

It wasn’t much of a “concert.” The brief performances made a third-hour Today street set look like Woodstock. It’s unclear what it was about the atmosphere of a political rally designed to excite the Keystone State’s blue metropolis that compelled Bon Jovi and Springsteen to perform somnolent, almost funereal versions of songs like “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Dancing in the Dark.” It’s also unclear if these performances worked as well on the crowd as they did on the middle-age male journalists assembled in the press section, who rushed to the nearest metal gates upon hearing the Boss’ first plucked acoustic string.

The crowd certainly liked Michelle Obama, whom an unusually short-winded Bill Clinton accurately introduced as “the finest surrogate, supporter that any candidate has ever had.” Both Michelle and Barack Obama didn’t want to steal the scene from nominee. That’s hard, since they’re Michelle and Barack Obama. Michelle Obama thanked the crowd for the “privilege of serving as your first family,” and added that “we believe our responsibility to you does not end when we leave the White House.” Their legacy and everything they care about is on the line—or, to put it bluntly, the Obama years will look a whole lot worse in the history books if the immediate reaction to it is the Donald Trump administration. You’d better believe they’re out in Philadelphia the night before the election telling people to vote—and in Michelle’s case, scolding anyone who dares consider a protest vote.

It was, as I say, a hard act for Hillary Clinton to follow. The same old bad lines were there, somehow. She is still, on the eve of the election, using the “Deal. Me. In” line. The slogan “Love Trumps Hate,” which couples fuzzy liberal glibness with a tiresome pun, is still in circulation.

When she moves past slogans, though, and tries to flesh out a point, she can have something. She had something when she began to speak of Khizr Khan, who introduced her in New Hampshire the previous night. She retold the well-told story of Khan’s son, who was killed in Iraq.

“And what Mr. Khan said last night is something I want us all to remember. He said after the many derogatory and insulting comments that we’ve heard from Donald Trump: Would his son, Captain Khan, have a place in Donald Trump’s America? That’s an important question for all of us.”

There were no hammy speech inflections here. She delivered it in a near whisper. It’s a question that you could tell she took seriously. And it’s a question she knew she wouldn’t be asking on the election eve if she weren’t running against Donald Trump. He has been abysmal, and she can thank him for putting her in the White House if she wins. But there have been consequences. Donald Trump’s America isn’t going anywhere, win or lose.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.