Hillary Clinton’s bittersweet return to the Democratic convention
By Lisa Lerer and Glenn Thrush
Hillary Clinton, whose presidential candidacy in 2016 sent Joe Biden to the sidelines, spent much of the 2020 primaries telling friends that her longtime ally and onetime rival was the only contender who could defeat President Donald Trump, according to people close to both.
But she also saw Kamala Harris as a possible successor of sorts, a next-generation leader with the toughness to build on Clinton’s legacy.
So Clinton is, by all accounts, reassured by the Biden-Harris ticket. But her return to center stage at the convention on Wednesday night, four years after becoming the first woman to win the nomination of a major party, is bittersweet.
Had things turned out differently, Clinton would be preparing her second acceptance speech. Instead, she has spent the last several days putting the finishing touches on a speech aimed at making a case for Biden and Harris.
It’s a familiar position for the former secretary of state. For decades, she spoke on behalf of her husband, Bill, then to help elect Barack Obama. Over her many years at the center of the Democratic Party, she campaigned for hundreds of federal, state and local candidates.
Yet, this moment is uniquely emotional for Clinton and the tens of millions who propelled her to a popular-vote majority of nearly 3 million in 2016, but a loss in the Electoral College. It is both a reminder of a job some allies still maintain was unfairly taken from Clinton and the wave of feminist activism sparked by her loss.
The former secretary of state plans to acknowledge that sentiment, relating how, in the days after her defeat, she was repeatedly confronted by despairing Democrats who presented her with all their “woulda, coulda, shoulda” scenarios, a person familiar with her remarks said.
Clinton, who will speak against the familiar backdrop of her parlor in Chappaqua, sees her return to the spotlight as an opportunity to harness the powerful feminist movement that grew out of her loss and to eject Trump from power.
The last time Clinton addressed a Democratic convention was July 26, 2016, in Philadelphia’s hockey arena. She accepted the nomination in a white pantsuit, a nod to the informal uniform of the women’s suffrage movement. It was a highlight of her campaign, say former aides, vindication for decades of grueling work, brutal attacks and controversy.
“I remember watching that roll call vote and being on bated breath knowing there would be something that would take this moment away from her and being so relieved when it wasn’t,” recalled Amanda Litman, a political strategist who worked on Clinton’s campaign. “It was the most celebratory it ever felt.”
She added, “It’s also proof positive that a very good convention has no relevance to the outcome of the election.”
But there were danger signs, even then.
Clinton’s speech was preceded by a queasy moment, when supporters of Bernie Sanders began booing as she approached the podium, to be quickly drowned out by shouts of “Hillary!”
The scars of 2016 have not entirely healed, especially when it comes to the FBI’s investigation into her email accounts, publicly reopened by FBI Director James Comey just 11 days before the election.
On Tuesday, Clinton posted a brief video clip of herself blinking disdainfully in response to a tweet by Comey that read: “#19thAmendment is an important anniversary but the vote is not enough. We need more women in office. VP and Virginia governor are good next steps.”
Clinton’s return performance at the convention will be hailed by her many millions of supporters. But there will be hecklers, too — most likely led by Trump, who has tried, without much success, to find another foil who evokes comparable vitriol among conservatives as the former first lady.
Clinton remains a divisive figure among parts of her party, blamed by some for the Democrats’ defeat and considered by others to be a victim of a misogynistic political system.
She is trying not to be defined by her enemies — on the right or the left. Clinton’s speech will be as focused on praising Biden and Harris as burying Trump, people close to her said; she is expected to include a forceful testimonial to Harris as the first woman of color on a major party’s presidential ticket.
She will also discuss what she sees as a connective thread among Biden, Harris and herself — their strong mothers. Clinton has never forgotten Biden’s attempts to console her over the death of her mother, Dorothy, in 2011 at the age of 92.
Clinton returned that favor and reached out to Biden after his son Beau learned he had terminal brain cancer in 2013.
After considering a third presidential run in early 2019, Clinton offered private support for Biden without endorsing him, calling the former vice president on several occasions to give advice and encouragement, two Democrats close to the situation said.
“Hillary Clinton really likes Joe Biden, and always has,” said Thomas R. Nides, a Biden supporter who served as undersecretary of state for Clinton from 2011 to 2013. “This is a real thing, not politics. She really liked him as a human being, and the feeling is mutual.”
During Obama’s first term, Biden and Clinton had a standing breakfast appointment every two weeks at the vice president’s residence at the Naval Observatory. But the relationship was tested in the second term when it became apparent to Biden that the president viewed Clinton as his rightful successor.
Biden was privately furious, and two of his top aides, Mike Donilon and Steve Ricchetti, drafted a memo outlining his strengths as a candidate, arguing that negative perceptions of Clinton made her a deeply vulnerable candidate.
The death of Beau Biden in mid-2015 effectively ended Biden’s aspirations that cycle. But he has often contended he could have beaten Trump.
He campaigned vigorously for Clinton, but the bitter experience of being pushed to stand down helped fuel his fire to run again, aides said.
More than anything, Clinton is embracing the role as a gender trailblazer that has defined her career, an updated version of the never-give-up message she delivered in the most admired address she has ever delivered, the “glass ceiling” speech that signified her exit from the 2008 Democratic primary.
During her last campaign, Clinton hoped to ride into office on the support of such a feminist uprising. The fact that the movement she hoped to spark grew from her defeat marks another twist in a career full of them.
In the Trump era, women have mobilized behind the Democratic Party, volunteering, donating and running for office in record numbers. The support of suburban women helped Democrats win control of the House in 2018, flip state legislatures and boost Biden to the nomination.
Clinton still possesses a loyal constituency of female supporters. As late as the fall of 2019, Clinton was considering a third bid for the presidency, as no real front-runner emerged in the primary race.
While she cast herself as a champion of women in politics, she declined to endorse or even more subtly signal a possible female heir among the diverse group of women running for president.
When Clinton did speak out, she courted controversy. A critique of Sanders during the launch of a documentary about her spurred fears that she was reigniting divides within the party. And her suggestion that Russian forces were grooming Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii to become a third-party spoiler helped Gabbard extend her time in the national spotlight.
But many of Clinton’s longtime supporters see Wednesday night’s speech as an opportunity for her to transfer her legacy to someone else — not to Biden but to Harris.
“She’s passing the torch to the Kamala Harris generation. That’s what makes it really exciting,” said Litman, now the executive director of Run for Something, which encourages young Democrats to seek political office. “It’s not just to Kamala Harris but to a whole generation of women that come next that can do so because Hillary Clinton went first.”