Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton put on a master's clinic on how to fight a political campaign. It may not have made Democrats wish he was back in the White House (at least not every Democrat), but they sure long to see him out on the campaign trail.
The former president took the stage to nominate the current president -- "I want to nominate a man who is cool on the outside, but burns for America on the inside" -- and found a way to turn every vulnerability of Barack Obama's candidacy into a strength. In fact, Clinton was far more effective than anyone else has been in defending the Obama administration’s record.
Clinton is the best campaigner of his generation. In 1992, I stood nearby and observed him engaging voters one by one at a shopping mall in New Hampshire at a moment when everyone had written him off as hopelessly damaged by revelations about his cheap romances and his draft record. He turned himself into the Comeback Kid and then into Mr. President. In New Hampshire again four years later, I marveled as he seduced an entire crowd with his singular ability to connect on an intellectual and a visceral level simultaneously.
The last time I crossed paths with Clinton in person was in June 2008 at a school gymnasium in Helena, Mont. The long string of Democratic primaries was about to end in bitter defeat for his wife, Hillary, and it was not his best day. Clinton looked bloated, red-faced and weary. A group of foreign reporters were on hand to see the famous man and they were not impressed. I thought maybe his political mojo had finally run out.
But he is obviously back in top form. The speech he gave to the delegates in Charlotte was as good as it gets. His voice alternated between the casual cadence of his Arkansas roots and the dramatic inflections of a gospel preacher. His manner was intimate, as if he was talking to individuals, not a huge crowd in a packed arena. He elaborated on complex issues in a way that made sense to the common person overwhelmed by competing campaign claims.
His presentation was the first meaty policy speech at either convention, but instead of being tedious, it was exhilarating. It was also the toughest attack yet against the Republican ticket. In lieu of the cheap insults that speakers at both conventions have been trading, Clinton smartly picked apart the arguments and accusations the Republicans have leveled against the president.
Clinton's unapologetic defense of "Obamacare" was the one Democrats should have been mounting for the last three years, instead of running for cover like tremulous weenies. After quoting GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's criticism of Obama's reduction in the Medicare budget, Clinton pointed out that Ryan included precisely the same cut in his own budget proposal. With a chuckle, he ad-libbed, "It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did," and brought the house down.
He took the healthcare debate further by pointing out the real cruelties of the Republicans' proposed cuts to Medicaid and framed the choice in this election as one between a GOP philosophy that says "you're on your own" and a Democratic guiding principle that says "we're all in this together."
Clinton summarized the GOP’s case against Obama -- "We left him a total mess, he didn't clean it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in." -- then declared that no president, including himself, could have brought the country all the way back from the brink of disaster in just four years.
If the Obama camp were to base every stump speech and TV ad for the next two months just on the material Bill Clinton provided them, they would have themselves a solid campaign. The only way to make it even better would be to have Bill Clinton deliver the message himself. The Big Dog knows how to bark.