Last night, the curtain came down on the primary season and the nation was treated to a dress rehearsal of the general election. The two candidates selected by each party share one characteristic in common: They are both the least liked nominees in history. But there the similarities end, and last night outlined the general shape of the election to come.
The big winner last night was Hillary Clinton. Even though the AP said she had passed the magic delegate number on Monday and was, therefore, the presumptive nominee, last night still had a feeling that had not been present earlier in the primary season: She was the one making history; she was the one with the energy and the vision. Donald Trump's complaints about Clinton playing the "woman card" notwithstanding, she actually did not usually play the woman card during the primaries. The dynamic was more insider v. outsider, and to the extent there was a sense of history being made, it belonged to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders who, among other things, disproved one of the central theses of his campaign, that rich fat-cats control politics, by outraising Clinton throughout 2016. Indeed, Clinton has been such a fixture on the national stage for so long, it seemed almost impossible to imagine her name and the adjective "new" appearing in the same sentence.
From her invocation of Seneca Falls, through a video highlighting the leadership of significant women in the past, to her tweet about girls everywhere realizing they can become president, Clinton embraced the history she was making last night and did so in a strategically intelligent way: She did not make her victory about her so much as she made it about America's history of ever increasing inclusion. As the rest of her speech developed, she hit many points of difference between herself and Mr. Trump but none more than the difference between her and the Democratic Party's vision of an inclusive and tolerant society and Trump's and the Republicans' vision of a society intent on building walls, denigrating minorities and the disabled, and generally being mean. In one of the finest moments of the speech, Clinton recalled her mother, born the day Congress passed the 19th Amendment, who taught Hillary to stand up to bullies, "which turned out to be pretty good advice." I do not know when Clinton's speechwriters started eating their Wheaties, but her speeches of late have improved vastly!
Clinton also used the occasion to challenge Trump directly and, I think, successfully, especially when she said, " 'Let’s make America great again' is code for let's take America backwards." If there was any doubt that this campaign would be fought on cultural issues as much as policy differences, there can be none after last night. Clinton intends this to be referendum on the kind of people we are as a nation. "We are a big-hearted , fair-minded country," she said, and then quoted from the Pledge of Allegiance and its promise of liberty and justice for all, emphasizing the last two words. She reached out to Sen. Sanders and his supporters and even identified with the pain they must have been feeling, recalling her own loss in 2008. Clinton has learned how to ride the applause the room and, apart from her strange manner of holding out her arms as she jumps on the stage, like a latter day Evita, you could see in tone and content and delivery the degree to which she has improved as a candidate.
Speeches, however, do not win elections. Votes win elections. Last night happened because she crushed Bernie Sanders. (Results for all six contests can be found here.) True, he won North Dakota big, with 64 percent of the vote, but North Dakota had 23 delegates to award. Clinton won New Jersey with 63 percent of the vote, and that Garden State had 142 delegates to award. Sanders needed to win all six contests last night by the kind of margin he has in North Dakota if he wanted to pick up any sense of momentum. Instead, he narrowly won Montana, but lost South Dakota and New Mexico to Clinton. Most importantly, in the delegate behemoth of the night, California, Clinton beat Sanders decisively, 56 percent to 43 percent as of this morning, with 95 percent of the precincts reporting. If those percentages had been reversed, Sanders might have been able to justify his continued romp through delegate fantasyland. Now it is merely time to wrap it up, preserve his dignity, and find a way to ally himself with Clinton so that he can advance his agenda.
I would submit that Sanders did not have the worst night. That distinction belonged to Trump. After days of racist rants about the judge hearing the suits against Trump’s fake university, and loud complaints from prominent Republicans, Trump decided to tone it down and deliver a disciplined speech. He even spoke from a teleprompter. But, just so, there was no emotional connection with either the audience in the room or the audience on television. He could not make someone else's words his own and even his family looked bored standing beside him. He took a shot at the Clintons, made a pitch to Sanders' supporters, and he said he wanted to "bring people together," which had exact same ring of veracity as did Richard Nixon's assertion, "I am not a crook." (Some people believed that, too.) The bad news for Team Trump is that when he is disciplined he is deadly dull. The other bad news is that when he is undisciplined and shooting from the hip, he is not dull but he descends effortlessly into the kind of bizarre rants that we associate with reality television not the presidency of the United States.
My favorite news item of the evening, however, came from Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader who said Trump must apologize for his comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel. The obvious question to pose to McConnell is: why now? Trump began his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and criminals. He has not failed to play the race card throughout the campaign. Why now object? The short answer is found in an observation made by Paul Krugman months ago, namely, that Trump's overt con game has exposed the GOP establishment's subtle con game. They have deftly played the race card for years. They have fed people a bunch of nonsense, denying climate change and embracing voodoo economics. They have winked at conspiracy theories. But, they never got caught because they articulated their racist populism with dog whistles while Trump simply states his racist populism in clear terms and in all its unvarnished ugliness.
Which leads to my favorite part of the pundit commentary. On all three cable networks last night, someone made the point that Hillary Clinton's campaign team paid attention to the GOP primary race, and they are determined not to fail to challenge Trump aggressively as Trump's Republican opponents failed to challenge him aggressively. To be clear, the difference in approach to Trump is not rooted in faulty campaign strategies. The difference is rooted in the fact that Trump's Republican opponents could not challenge him on his race-baiting because the Republican base liked that race-baiting. Clinton does not have to worry about alienating the GOP base. Team Clinton did not learn from the failure of other Republican contenders. They recognize that the America to which Trump appeals is a demographic snapshot of yesteryear.
I am no fan of Hillary Clinton, never have been and am not now. But, there is a decency at the heart of the Democratic Party's vision for America, an imperfect decency which fails to include respect for the littlest among us, and a decency too often abandoned to the whims of the creative classes who have overlooked the basic economic realities of large swaths of America for too long, paving the way for the resentments that are the fuel for Trump's campaign. But, those resentments and the vision that they have produced in the GOP today are ugly, simply ugly. There is no redeeming concern for freedom in Trump's vision. There is no philosophic commitment to conservative principles, many of which are as noble as liberal principles. The choice between the two parties had never been so stark. And, if Trump has many more weeks like this past week, the Republicans are looking at a loss of historic proportions. It would serve them right for running their con game for so long. But, that game is up.
[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]