In accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for president last night, Hillary Clinton signaled two major shifts in US politics, one undeniably permanent, and the other of uncertain duration. The first, of course, was the shattering of the cultural barrier that had kept a woman from being nominated for the presidency.
“Standing here as my mother’s daughter, and my daughter’s mother, I’m so happy this day has come,” Clinton said. “Happy for grandmothers and little girls and everyone in between. Happy for boys and men, too — because when any barrier falls in America, for anyone, it clears the way for everyone. When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.”
She added, “So let’s keep going until every one of the 161 million women and girls across America has the opportunity she deserves.”
But the gender of the candidate accepting the nomination last night was only one of things profoundly different about the final night of the convention. Facing Republican nominee Donald Trump whose message is relentlessly negative and alarmist, Democrats seized the opportunity to recast their party as the repository of Americans’ hopes, dreams, and love of country.
In a calculated move to break the connection between Trump and a Republican Party that has tried its best to present a positive, upbeat vision of the United States since conservative icon Ronald Reagan described it as a “shining ‘city on a hill,’” Democrats on Thursday night claimed the banners of optimism and patriotism that Trump has largely discarded.
“He’s taken the Republican Party a long way from ‘Morning in America’ to ‘Midnight in America,’” Clinton said of Trump, referring to Reagan’s 1984 reelection slogan. “So don’t let anyone tell you that our country is weak. We’re not. Don’t let anyone tell you we don’t have what it takes. We do.”
The Democratic Party’s US-boosterism has long been leavened by recognition that the country has often fallen short of its ideals. So, it’s an open question whether the shift will be long-lived. But it was undeniable that last night it worked, and worked well.
Retired Marine Corps General John Allen, who for a time led the US effort to battle ISIS in Iraq and Syria, delivered a thundering, full-throated endorsement from the convention stage, backed by dozens of fellow former general officers and other veterans.
A small number of protesters tried to chant over him, yelling “No more war!” but they were repeatedly drowned out by chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” from the crowd and by Allen himself, who appeared at times to find enjoyment in bellowing his endorsement of Clinton and his harsh criticism of Trump right over them.
Referring to Clinton, whom he worked with while she served as secretary of state, Allen said, "We believe in her vision of an America as a just and strong leader against the forces of hatred, the forces of chaos and darkness. We know that she, as no other, knows how to use all instruments of American power, not just the military, to keep us all safe and free.”
And he contrasted a Clinton presidency with the possibility of a Trump administration -- pointing out the Republican nominee’s promise to reinstitute the use of torture, to attack the families of US adversaries, and his reluctance to observe treaty obligations unless he believes the US is compensated financially.
“I also know that with her as our commander in chief, our international relations will not be reduced to a business transaction,” Allen said. “I also know that our armed forces will not become an instrument of torture, and they will not be engaged in murder, or carry out other illegal activities.”
But the evening’s most effective -- and emotionally wrenching -- takedown of the Trump campaign came not from a general or a politician but from a middle-aged lawyer of Pakistani origin named Khizr Khan.
Khan, whose son, Army Capt. Humayun Khan was killed in Iraq in 2004 while protecting his unit from a suicide car-bomber, took the stage and noted forcefully that if Donald Trump’s proposed anti-Muslim immigration policy had been in place when he immigrated to the US, his son would not have been born here.
“If it was up to Donald Trump, he never would have been in America,” Khan said, with obvious but controlled anger. “Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims. He disrespects other minorities, women, judges, even his own party leadership.”
With his wife Ghazala standing silently beside him he demanded, “Donald Trump, you are asking Americans to trust you with our future. Let me ask you: Have you even read the United States Constitution?
“I will gladly lend you my copy,” he said, reaching into his jacket pocket and withdrawing a small, dog-eared booklet that he shook forcefully with his right hand. “In this document, look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law.’
Then, in the single most powerful moment of the evening, and possibly the entire convention, he again addressed Trump: “Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery?"
Khan, whose son is buried there, beneath a gravestone with an Islamic crescent that sits surrounded by others marked with Christian crosses, continued, “Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America — you will see all faiths, genders, and ethnicities.
“You have sacrificed nothing. And no one.”
In her speech, Clinton also touched on more workaday issues of public policy, from health care to education, and embraced her reputation for being focused and detail-oriented. She explicitly drew a contrast with Trump, whose proposals are frequently lacking in specifics, a problem he airily dismisses with calls for his audience to “Believe me.”
“I sweat the details of policy,” Clinton said. “Because it’s not just a detail if it’s your kid — if it’s your family. It’s a big deal. And it should be a big deal to your president.”
She also reached out to her primary rival Bernie Sanders and his supporters, some of whom remain vocal opponents of her candidacy.
“I want to thank Bernie Sanders,” Clinton said, as the Vermont senator sat stone-faced in the audience. “Bernie, your campaign inspired millions of Americans, particularly the young people who threw their hearts and souls into our primary. You've put economic and social justice issues front and center, where they belong.
“And to all of your supporters here and around the country: I want you to know, I've heard you. Your cause is our cause. Our country needs your ideas, energy, and passion. That's the only way we can turn our progressive platform into real change for America.”
There is still a long time -- 102 days -- between now and Election Day. Much can happen between now and then, but if the rest of the race is a sprint to November 8, Clinton came out of the blocks looking very strong last night.