Until Bill Clinton spoke last night, the Democratic National Convention was like a bar mitzvah where all the speakers have dementia and sing identical praises of the bar mitzvah boy over and over again: Barack Obama is a gift to God who will push you “forward, not back!” and Mitt Romney is the guy on Mad Men who slaps your ass and fires you. Forward, back, forward, back …
It was nauseating.
Then came Clinton, who drew an applause bigger than any other speaker at both conventions combined, and gave a speech as rich in actual policy as it was rousing. (He is probably the first person in history to say the word “arithmetic” and get a standing ovation.)
His alluson to humble beginnings was, thank God, mostly a joke.
“Bob Strauss used to say that every politician wants every voter to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself. But, as Strauss then admitted, it ain’t so.”
He laced rhetoric with actual experience.
“I had the same thing happen in 1994 and early ‘95. We could see that the policies were working, that the economy was growing. But most people didn’t feel it yet. Thankfully, by 1996 the economy was roaring, everybody felt it, and we were halfway through the longest peacetime expansion in the history of the United States. And if you will renew the president’s contract, you will feel it.”
He turned assumed foes into good friends.
“When I was a governor, I worked with President Reagan and his White House on the first round of welfare reform and with President George H.W. Bush on national education goals. I’m actually very grateful to — if you saw from the film what I do today, I have to be grateful, and you should be, too — that President George W. Bush supported PEPFAR. It saved the lives of millions of people in poor countries.”
But most of all he did what no one on either side of the political fence has been able to do to this election campaign: he injected it with some positivity. The reason his speech was so well received is because he rose above the divisive culture wars that have overshadowed the campaign. Why? Because he spoke to an entirely bi-partisan theme: co-operation.
“When times are tough and people are frustrated and angry and hurting and uncertain, the politics of constant conflict may be good. But what is good politics does not necessarily work in the real world. What works in the real world is co-operation.”
When he went after Romney and Ryan it wasn’t, for the most part, to accuse them of being heartless ideologues, but to admonish their party’s unwillingness to co-operate with the other side. His remedy for American success wasn’t a Democratic government, but a Democratic government that worked in conjunction with a Republican one. “Just ask the mayors,” he said.
It takes a special kind of speaker to be able to patiently explain policy decisions to a televisized audience and bring the one before him to its feet.
I would go the other way for Bill Clinton. And I’m sure after last night, Barack Obama would too.