On Wednesday evening, former president Bill Clinton delivered what will almost certainly be judged as one of the great rhetorical moments of modern American political life with his speech to the Democratic national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. J BROOKS SPECTOR, keeping up his insomnia, is not afraid to admit he was awed by the sheer effect of Clinton’s star turn on the podium.
Serving up the master’s mix of gospel pipes and policy wonk-dom, the Big Dawg, Bubba, Daddy Bear excoriated the Republicans for their misrepresentations of the Obama – and Democratic Party – record and the GOP’s stubborn refusal to compromise with them; made it his very personal business to set the record straight on which party actually delivers on promises to nurture job creation; and drew a vivid picture of Democratic Party promises and programs designed to bolster support for middle class dreams and aspirations for the future.
In Clinton’s words: “In Tampa the Republican argument against the President’s re-election was pretty simple: We left him a total mess, he hasn’t finished cleaning it up yet, so fire him and put us back in…I like the argument for President Obama’s re-election a lot better. He inherited a deeply damaged economy, put a floor under the crash, began the long hard road to recovery, and laid the foundation for a more modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs, vibrant new businesses, and lots of new wealth for the innovators…The most important question is, what kind of country do you want to live in? If you want a ‘you’re-on-your-own, winner-take-all’ society, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared prosperity and shared responsibility — a ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ society — you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”
One of Clinton’s biggest challenges (and indeed the Democrats’ task in this election more generally) was to address that seductive Republican siren call to undecided voters: “Having voted for Barack Obama in 2008, can you honestly say you are better off now than four years ago?” Clinton’s approach was to recalibrate the yardstick. Summoning the records of Democratic and Republican presidents collectively since 1960, Clinton argued that, taken together, Democratic presidents had delivered twice as many new jobs in less time in office than Republican chief executives had managed collectively. From this, it was a short rhetorical hop, skip and a jump to reshape the more recent comparison of economic malaise and job losses, starting from the beginning of the financial crisis during George W Bush’s term of office and moving forward to the present, rather than using Barack Obama’s inauguration as the starting point.
Then, moving on to tackle the Republican congressional majority and its constant, self-described efforts to make Obama a one-term president, Clinton said: “Here’s the job score, president Obama 4.5 million new jobs, congressional Republicans zero.” Turning to the auto bailout, Clinton added that the real circumstances with Detroit were that there are now more jobs in the auto industry than the day that sector was restructured – and rescued. “Here’s another job score – Obama administration 250,000, Romney zero.” Romney famously came out against the bailout when it was first proposed.
Watch: Bill Clinton’s speech
Throughout Clinton’s verbal pyrotechnics, the fate of the middle class was preeminent in his text – whether it was the importance of new measures to keep college loan interest costs within bounds, preserving the current health coverage of Medicare or to endorse the new measures that are part of “Obamacare”. Why the middle class? Simply put, that’s where the votes are – and most especially those still-wavering undecided voters as well as former Obama supporters who may be disillusioned with the Obama record on economic growth, human rights concerns or the promise of a fundamental reordering of the Washington political universe.
Once the former president had wound up his length speech – some fifteen minutes beyond its scheduled time and complete with numerous impromptu riffs that rode the mood of the crowd – Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, perhaps just a tinsey bit shocked himself by the force of the Clinton tsunami, told one international TV news channel that the Democrats should just declare the convention finished and lock the doors – and that if Obama wins this election, here is where it happened. Moreover, he added that in a hall filled with left-wing crazies (paralleling, he said, the right wing lunatics populating the Republicans’ gathering in Tampa), Clinton had single-handedly dragged his party back to the middle where he had so firmly put it when he was president. As a consequence, it was once again “Daddy Bear’s party [centrist, third-way], not Obama’s.”
American novelist F Scott Fitzgerald famously decreed “there are no second acts in American lives”. But Bill Clinton, in this performance, has proved him wrong. In the minds and hearts of Democrats, certainly with this appearance, and building on his commendable post-presidential philanthropic record, Clinton has been decisively rehabilitated from any stain remaining from the personal scandals of his administration, securing a place of honour for his economic record. Moreover, this performance was the capstone of the courtship between the Obama and Clinton wings of the Democratic Party that has been going on for the past couple of years. This followed the unpleasantness and rancour visible to all during the 2008 contest for the Democratic nomination for the presidency between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza documented this courtship in great detail in a recent article: “Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have never been close. Some of their advisers concede that the two men don’t really like each other. They have openly disagreed on policy issues and political strategy, and the acrimony generated during the 2008 Democratic primaries, when Hillary Clinton ran against Obama for the nomination, has yet to fully dissipate. Nevertheless, a carefully orchestrated reconciliation of sorts has been under way for some time now…” This partnership has now been fully consummated before a national, indeed international TV audience.
Following Clinton’s forceful endorsement of Obama’s campaign for a second term, Barack Obama strode onto the stage to join in a beaming bear hug between the two men. The audience of delegates and observers, not surprisingly, roared. One could feel it right through the television screen.
Now, of course, the task for Barack Obama is to deliver a speech that serves as an effective capstone of this convention on Thursday evening. As one analyst commented, with his wife delivering the heart and Bill Clinton serving up the brain of the party’s case separately, the candidate himself must now bring the two halves together into a seamless whole. Obama is no mean speechifier himself, but this is a tall order and he must exceed – or at least meet – expectations so as to send his party out into the fall campaign on a high note rather than a let-down.
He must reach out to the many demographic segments that are part of the Democratic coalition, preach the gospel of the middle class, hammer home the mistakes or worse in the Republicans’ depiction of his record and his promises, even as he addresses the reality that many people are still hurting from the financial and economic crisis that began in 2007 and who have yet to be made whole. Oh, and while he’s at that set of tasks, he must find a way to connect with the remaining undecideds who are among the most concerned about the president’s basic competence in addressing the management of national government economic policy.
Complicating his task is the contretemps that has arisen from the past-deadline changes in the party’s platform – explicitly reinserting the word “God” into the section on faith and explaining away the deletion and then returning the section affirming Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. While no one really cares all that much about the specifics in the party platform once a candidate is elected, this back-and-forth gives an opportunity for the dreaded charge by Republicans of flip-flopping in the Obama camp, as well as the perceived slaps against people of faith and those Jewish Americans who feel strongly about naming Israel’s capital. Maybe these will matter, maybe they won’t, but in a race this tight, every tactical edge may be crucial to the final result. DM
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Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) and former President Bill Clinton (R) wave after Clinton addressed the second session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina September 5, 2012. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi
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