Many conservative commentators saw in Bill Clinton’s speech an overly long, rambling, charming, endorsement of Barack Obama, a bit too wonky, and probably successful, if at all, only in assuring some wavering voters to stick with their 2008 decision and renew President Obama’s contract with America.
It was more than that.
In his deceptively folksy way, the former president laid out a tight intellectual defense of the Obama record, and a difficult to answer attack on the Romney-Ryan ticket. Clinton disposed of the “Are you better off?” question by answering “Indeed, we are.” Job losses in the hundreds of thousands every month have been converted into growth in new jobs, admittedly slow—but, hey, slow growth beats a downward plunge in jobs every time. Millions of young people, and people with prior conditions, now have health insurance, and are surely better off than they were in 2008. Young people are finding college more affordable than before. House prices are coming back and share prices are hitting record highs.
Given President Obama’s demonstrated skill at finding goodies for Hispanics, other minorities, women, and other groups he wants to stitch into his coalition, the list of why each group is better off can be extended almost indefinitely. In short, Romney-Ryan would do well to find a theme different from the one Ronald Reagan rode into the White House in 1980.
What Clinton did was lay out the intellectual roadmap for the president to follow. Abstractions such as the deficit—one must imagine $16 trillion, or really grasp the difference between that and the $11 trillion George W. Bush left his successor, and have the skills to track its effect on a host of economic variables—pale into insignificance compared with millions of new jobs and expanded health care benefits.
No denying that things are tough—Elizabeth Warren’s speech described an America in such trouble that you have to wonder whether she knows that this sickness persists after three years of treatment by Dr. Obama. Clinton was shrewder: Instead of concentrating on the level of unemployment and the declining real income of the middle class, he painted a picture of a future in which the man who admits to an incomplete will complete the work that has so far brought us back from the brink of disaster, deploying a skill so far not apparent—a charm offensive that will restore bipartisanship to policy making. Watching the “Big Dog” look each of the millions of viewers directly in the eye as in days of yore, it was almost possible to believe that this master of emollience would teach the remote, partisan Obama—“cool on the outside,” according to Clinton—how to have a drink with his opponents, how not to consider it a victory if he can stage a public humiliation of his opponents, as he did with Paul Ryan.
Almost possible to imagine, but not quite. The main flaw in the Clinton speech was that he ended up nominating Barack Obama, the advocate of every larger government and ever bigger deficits, rather than throwing his own hat into the ring so that he could implement his own insight that the age of big government is over. It now falls to Mitt Romney to explain how he would be more Clinton than the man Clinton has urged his followers to support.