Bill Clinton should still be a political punch line. After the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his impeachment by the House of Representatives one might think that he would still be too radioactive for the prime time slot at the DNC. Apparently not… because last night Bill Clinton stole the show. It was a legend do what he does best. Love him or hate him, you can’t argue the fact that Bill Clinton is still the most talented politician in America.
I’m not sure what I expected, but what I saw was that Clinton gave the speech I expected Paul Ryan to give last week. In very clear terms he explained his version of why Barack Obama deserves a second term; a version which – let’s face it – was long on rhetoric, shady stats, and questionable logic but which somehow rings true to what many Americans have been sensing for most of the election cycle. Clinton took nerdy, boring, political policy and wove it into a compelling policy centered narrative. He demonstrated once again why as President, he came back from every scandal: winning elections isn’t about the candidate, it’s about the policy and the people. Whoever can most effectively connect the policy narrative to their candidacy will win. The election isn’t about who is the better man. As far as I can tell the candidates are both very good and honorable men. The election is about connecting people’s self interest to a compelling political narrative which will serve as a rationale for governing.
Romney doesn’t have that narrative yet, and its unlikely he’ll be able to find it in time. Obama has struggled to articulate his policy narrative because when he tries to make the case for himself, it sounds like a bunch of excuses and equivocation. When Bill Clinton said it for him – what can I say – it worked. Clinton told voters who are frustrated because they haven’t quite felt the economic turn around yet exactly what they wanted to hear:
“No president, no president — not me or any of my predecessors, no one, could have repaired all the damage he found in just four years. But he has laid the foundation for a new, modern, successful economy, of shared prosperity, and if you renew the President’s contract you will feel it. You will feel it.”
This might be the only rationale many Americans need in order to vote for Barack Obama. People still believe that Bill Clinton knows what he’s talking about, and he says it’s coming back. Then he drove home what might have been the most effective subversion of Romney’s rationale (his policy narrative) for election:
“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.”
This was the real political move of the night. Without even mentioning his name, Clinton effectively tied Romney to George W. Bush. The mistake that the Obama campaign continues to make is to paint Romney as a mustache twisting daddy-war-bucks who has a couple of poor people tied up in his basement just for fun. It doesn’t fit. But Clinton tied him to George W. Bush whose policy narrative is already set in stone: he was a really good guy, great on foreign policy and presidential pastoral care who was in over his head on the economy and steered the ship into a sandbar.
Fact checkers will be working for days to try and help decide if they are buying what Clinton is selling, but it won’t matter. The damage to Romney has been done. I look for Barack Obama to weave a similar