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Former Clinton Speechwriter On Hillary's Speech

We asked David Kusnet, Bill Clinton's former chief speechwriter and author of Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America's Best Workers Are Unhappier than Ever, to give his impression of Hillary's non-concession speech.

Well, yes, Hillary Clinton's remarks last night were unusual. But, bear in mind, it's her situation that is unprecedented--not her speech.

The primaries and caucuses are all over. She trails by a narrower margin than any runner-up in either party since 1952. And keep in mind, there is no tradition of second-place finishers withdrawing on the nights their opponents clinch the nominations. Nelson Rockefeller in 1968, Ronald Reagan in 1976, Edward Kennedy in 1980, Gary Hart in 1984, and Jesse Jackson in 1988--they all kept going against even greater odds than Clinton faces now.

Of course, Clinton has no mathematical way to win, but in "the fullness of time," as old-fashioned orators used to say--and, these days, that can be by the end of a week--her intentions may become clearer. She'll have spoken to key supporters, to Barack Obama, and perhaps to her party's leaders in the Senate. Sooner or later, she'll give the speech most Democrats, including many who supported her, are awaiting--a gracious concession to Barack Obama and an appeal for party unity. The point isn't when she gives this speech but how she gives it--it must be a clarion call, not an uncertain trumpet.

Plus, a straightforward concession speech Tuesday night might have stranded some prominent backers, while affording some of her most devoted rank-and-file followers (and maybe the candidate herself) too little time to cool down from the intense emotions of the campaign. And silence was not an option (imagine what the commentators would have said if she hadn't spoken at all). So she gave a spirited and occasionally eloquent speech that summed up her campaign, thanked her supporters, and left the door open for whatever will be decided behind closed doors.

Yes, the speech sounded at times as if she had won, rather than lost, by the narrowest of margins. While ungrudgingly generous, her praise for Obama at the beginning of the speech sounded more like a winner consoling a loser. But what matters most is what came afterwards--or, more importantly, what didn't come afterwards. The tone of the remainder of her remarks was almost entirely elegiac--looking backwards to the issues she'd raised and the people she'd met, not forward to a further fight for the nomination. While she offered no answer to her own question--"Where do we go from here?"--her message was clear from her concluding declaration that she is committed to "uniting this party." True, she pointed yet again to her strength in the swing states, her margin (by some reckonings) in the popular vote, and her insistence that every vote be counted. But she must have known that these lines did not offer a ringing rationale for continuing her campaign through August. Indeed, she said little that hinted at actively competing in the weeks ahead and nothing that the Republicans could later use against Obama. Instead, she reiterated her support for the causes she had embraced in her campaign, most notably universal health coverage--commitments that are unifying rather than divisive for Democrats. 

The speech was in keeping with the populist tone she'd struck in the final leg of the campaign, when she won major industrial states, as well as areas where wages have long lagged behind the rest of the nation. Yes, she should have used that same kind of oratory to attack Bush, McCain, and the other adversaries whom she and Obama will soon be strafing together. But, contrary to what many of the TV commentators and other instant-responders have been saying, she set the stage for a graceful withdrawal, not a scorched-earth battle that would destroy the Democrats' chances.

No candidate has ever been in exactly the situation in which Clinton finds herself. Finding the right way out--and the right words to explain herself--will take a little time. That's the least the Democrats owe her in return for what they need from her.

--David Kusnet