The big unanswered question at the Democratic National Convention is not whether Russian hackers will sneak embarrassing text into the president’s teleprompter, or if the Bernie Sanders backers will have any voices left when it’s time to boo on Thursday night.

The real question is about Hillary Clinton: Does she know what time it is?

Sometimes she doesn’t seem to recognize that she is in the midst of a historical moment unlike anything she has ever seen.

When she appeared with her running mate, Tim Kaine, last weekend, she nodded enthusiastically as he rolled out some Spanish phrases and gently attacked Donald Trump for not releasing his tax returns.

That might be a good, tough line if you were running against a normal Republican like Mitt Romney. But not paying his fair share of taxes is about the 100th thing on the “bad stuff about Trump” list.

Then Monday I heard radio commentator Cokie Roberts report that the Clinton people liked Kaine because he’s “nice.”

Nice.

Like him or not, Donald Trump has defined what this election is about, and it’s not about being nice.

In his acceptance speech last Thursday night, Trump made clear the election is a battle over what kind of country America is going to be. It’s a moment in history that requires extraordinary change.

“Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation,” Trump said. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country. …

“I have a message for all of you: The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on Jan. 20, 2017, safety will be restored.”

He diagnosed the problem (crime and terrorism), identified the enemy (criminals, terrorists and political elites) and promised a solution (I don’t know what it is, but everybody cheered).

If Clinton comes back and says crime is down, Trump will win this election, even though crime is, in fact, down.

What the fact checkers are missing is that Trump says what many people feel, and that statistics and programs matter less than a story that plausibly explains what happened and what’s going to happen next.

By Thursday, Clinton will have to tell her own story, a tall order for a politician who doesn’t usually talk about the world in such broad, emotional strokes. As she told Black Lives Matters protesters last year, she thinks that you can’t change people’s hearts, only laws and the allocation of resources.

Any hint of that message Thursday night would be a disaster for the Democrats.

So would trying to reintroduce a nicer version of herself to the country. If she had been watching Monday, Bernie Sanders did a good job summing up his view of what’s at stake. “This election is about ending the 40-year decline of our middle class. It’s about the reality that 47 million men, women and children live in poverty. It is about understanding that if we do not transform our economy, our younger generation will likely have a lower standard of living than their parents. This election is about ending the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality that we currently experience, the worst it has been since 1928. It is not moral, not acceptable and not sustainable.”

Or if she wanted to go even farther back, she could look at the acceptance speech by Harry S. Truman, who in 1948 was trying to succeed a charismatic president while Truman’s political coalition was splintering (sound familiar?). Democrats didn’t just boo Truman. Two third-party campaigns split off and ran against him – the anti-civil rights “Dixiecrats,” and New Deal veteran Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party.

Truman promised delegates that he would beat the Republicans “because they are wrong and we are right.” Then he had this to say:

“The battle lines of 1948 are the same as they were in 1932, when the nation lay prostrate and helpless as a result of Republican misrule and inaction. … Today, in 1948, we are now the defenders of the stronghold of democracy and of equal opportunity, the haven of the ordinary people of this land and not of the favored classes or the powerful few.”

Clinton’s challenge will be to present herself as an agent of change in a system of which she has been an important part. Will she seize the moment and match Trump’s dark vision with an optimistic one that still acknowledges the economic anxiety so many live with?

Thursday night will be the time we find out.

 

Listen to Press Herald podcasts, including one for this column, at: www.pressherald.com/podcast