Contributors assess the speeches on the second night of the DNC
Alan Brinkley: It has always been remarkable how Bill Clinton can bring a crowd alive
John Avlon: Clinton's speech serves as a reminder of why we should love civic debates
Maria Cardona: He spoke directly to disaffected swing voters
The second night of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, featured speeches by Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States, as well as Elizabeth Warren, candidate for the U.S. Senate. The following contributors offered their assessments.
Alan Brinkley: Clinton was not only charismatic, but serious
It has always been remarkable, I think, how Bill Clinton can bring a crowd alive, and that’s what he did on Wednesday night. It was a speech full of wonky policy issues, the things he likes so well. But after so many months of paid advertisements playing ugly criticisms of the opposition, Clinton was not only charismatic, but serious.
For years now, conventions have been carefully organized for television without any real energy or excitement, one of the reasons that so few people are watching them anymore. But Clinton turned the convention into a real conversation about policy, about politics, and about the future.
His viewers might not agree with much of what he says, but his speech was still an event of the campaign. I wonder whether President Obama, who can give a pretty good speech himself, feels that Clinton has overtaken him. I wonder if Clinton’s speech will lead to a more honest way of arguing about ideas and policy. I doubt it. But it might help at least some people to think about serious things.
Alan Brinkley is the Allan Nevins professor of history at Columbia University.
John Avlon: Our most talented politician makes Obama’s case
Bill Clinton’s speech reminded many Americans why he remains our country’s most beloved and naturally talented politician, for all his faults.
On Wednesday night, he cut through the predictable partisan spin by making a credible and compelling case for Barack Obama’s re-election – better, frankly, than the president has made himself to date.
Full disclosure: I was a Clinton kid. I was a freshman in college in 1992, and Bubba’s campaign inspired the sense that there was a third way, between the far right and far left, that could actually solve problems instead of simply demagoguing them. He was my sub-generation’s JFK, and he inspired my unapologetic centrist politics.
Bill Clinton can talk policy without putting anyone to sleep. That means communicating a love of ideas that can be put into action. And so in Wednesday night’s speech he offered a seminar in how to contrast constructively; putting forward stats that resonate with common-sense values.
Case in point: Clinton’s analysis of health care reform, and even the comparative deficit and debt plans, resonates on Main Street because he talks in terms of values and respects the intelligence of the American people. He surgically skewered the alternative Republican plans as well. In the process, he reminded us that good policy can be good politics, connecting with humor to the head and heart.
Some of the unrelenting Clinton nostalgia from baby boomers stems from the fact that he reminds them of when they were younger than today, and possibly wealthier and more influential than they might be now. But the fact that Bill and Hillary Clinton are today apparently the most admired Democrats among Republicans – who once made hating them a cottage industry, as they do with the Obamas today – is ironic and sadly hilarious, a reminder of how shallow and unprincipled poisonous hyperpartisanship always ultimately is.
If Bill Clinton were constitutionally eligible for another term, he would win. If swing voters all listened to Wednesday night’s speech, I believe Barack Obama would win this election.
But Clinton’s speech Wednesday night was both a seminar and a reminder of why we should love civic debates, as a matter of style and substance, focused on policy as well as politics. Write this line down: “Democracy … does not have to be a blood sport; it can be an honorable enterprise that advances the human interest.” Remember it and aspire to it, taking heart amid all the heat, to persevere in the belief that something at least a little bit better can always be within our reach.
John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book “Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns.” He is a regular contributor to “Erin Burnett OutFront” and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to “Erin Burnett OutFront” at 7 ET weeknights.
Maria Cardona: Clinton answers the ‘better off’ question with resounding ‘Yes!’
President Clinton’s speech, delivered in his unique, well, Clintonesque manner, crystallized the choice this election. He spelled out in the way only he can why Republicans seem to have a visceral reaction to President Obama and how that has kept them from putting the interests of the nation before their politics. And he did it with emotion that was rational, passionate and pragmatic.
He spoke directly to those disaffected swing voters who are disenchanted with the pace of the change they voted for in 2008, by explaining that it was not Obama who changed or who didn’t work to deliver, it was the Republicans who kowtowed to their extreme wings and put the goal of defeating the president before any commitment to solving the big problems facing this nation.
He set the record straight on Medicare and on GOP fabrications about Obama’s stance on welfare reform, and he unequivocally answered the question of whether we are better off today than when Obama took office: The answer was a resounding yes. Clinton’s credibility and history with a similar economic situation (though Clinton said that no president could have fixed the damage Obama was handed in just four years) made him the right messenger to the right audience at the right time for Obama. He delivered and he delivered big.
Other notable speeches? Elizabeth Warren, Cristina Saralegui – the Latina Oprah Winfrey – and of course Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student smeared by Rush Limbaugh for speaking out for contraception coverage. They spoke to critical audiences within the Democratic Party: progressives who see Warren as a champion and crusader for consumer protection against a Wall Street run amok; progressive and independent women for whom Fluke embodies concern about politicians making decisions about their bodies, their families and their lives; and Latinos for whom Saralegui is an icon. She was introduced by a compelling “Dreamer,” Benita Veliz, underscoring the importance of immigration reform.
All three women spoke eloquently and from the heart about the only candidate in the race they said would fight for middle-class families, women, Latinos, Dreamers. One who would uphold the ideals of fairness, opportunity, hard work and compassion that reflect a country where everyone has the chance to achieve the American dream.
Maria Cardona is a Democratic strategist, a principal at the Dewey Square Group, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and former communications director for the Democratic National Committee.
Ana Navarro: Sweet justice for the man from Hope, Arkansas
On Wednesday night, Bill Clinton showed us what a political comeback looks like. In 2008, during the Democrat primary, he went from being the “first black president” to being accused of racism.
I know Bill Clinton, and when I saw him shortly after the election, he was deeply hurt. He thought Obama and the media had been terribly unfair to Hillary and to him.
Tonight, the man who was marginalized in 2008 came to the rescue of the man who marginalized him. And he did it in classic Clinton style: long, didactic, funny and very damn good.
I am a Republican, but I love a good political speech regardless of who gives it. Clinton was at the top of his game. He started with a bipartisan preamble, even giving credit to Presidents Bush 41 and 43. Then he went on to teach a master lesson on a partisan attack.
It says a lot about how Clinton is perceived and how Joe Biden is perceived that the former president got a night as the headliner all to his own, while the sitting vice president did not.
This night was sweet justice for the man from Hope, Arkansas. In 2000, Al Gore wanted to be his own man and couldn’t keep Clinton far enough away. Today, Barack Obama wants to be Bill Clinton’s heir and cannot keep him close enough. However, this does create a problem for Obama. He now needs to top Clinton’s speech, and Bill set the bar quite high.
Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and commentator, served as national Hispanic campaign chairwoman for John McCain in 2008 and national Hispanic co-chair for Jon Huntsman’s 2012 campaign.
Ruben Navarrette: A great storyteller, but you have to read between the lines
Bubba is back. And, from the sound of it, he never left.
Bill Clinton did Wednesday what he needed to do for Barack Obama. With a speech that was substantive and entertaining, the Democrats’ Great Communicator energized the party’s base. He laid out the narrative of the Obama presidency, better than anyone in this administration – including the president himself – has been able to do in the last three and a half years. He recited and refuted some of the more damning criticisms that Republicans lodged against Obama last week at their convention. And he assured the American people that he – to continue a familiar theme from the Clinton years – felt their pain and understood their worry over a fragile economy.
This being a Clinton speech, there were great lines. The former president pointed out that Obama had appointed to his cabinet people who had supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary. “Heck,” Clinton said, “he even appointed Hillary.”
And this being a Clinton speech, there were also half-truths. For instance, you remember when GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan was criticized by the left for blaming Obama for not acting on the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles plan for debt reduction, without revealing the little detail about how he himself didn’t support it. Clinton called the Simpson-Bowles commission a “balanced approach” but didn’t mention that Obama had failed to heed its recommendations.
As someone who writes a lot about immigration, I heard one other line that jumped out at me: “If you think the president was right to open the doors of American opportunity to young immigrants brought here as children who want to go to college or serve in the military,” Clinton said, “You should vote for Barack Obama.”
He was referring to Obama’s announcement several weeks ago that the Department of Homeland Security would take applications from young illegal immigrants who are interested in two years of temporary “deferred action” to keep them from being deported.
Again, Clinton left out one detail that suggests he is the last person who should talk about deporting anyone.
Immigration attorneys tell me that when they’re fighting a deportation order against an individual, they first must overcome the legacy of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. That law, which was authored by a Republican – Texas Rep. Lamar Smith – makes it easier for the federal government to deport illegal immigrants and harder to fight their removals. And who signed that terrible bill into law?
Yep, Bill Clinton. The former president is a great storyteller, as we all know. But, whether he is defending Obama or himself, you have to read between the lines.
Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.
Joanne Bamberger: Reaching voters at the ‘ragged edge of the middle class’
Elizabeth Warren was a great choice for the party faithful to introduce former president Bill Clinton. In the telling of her personal story of pulling herself up by her own bootstraps, as well as her reluctance to take on the bigger political struggle of running for Senate, she was able to connect the crowd with a message that is central to the Democrats’ message: that the country has been built on the backs of middle-class people who struggle every day, not the supposed “job creators,” a la Bain Capital.
Warren also used her story of creating the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau to remind voters that the system is rigged through the tax code for the wealthy. Using a “calling it like she sees it” approach, she reminded the crowd that there’s a big difference for the country between celebrating the success of those who do the hard work of everyday life, and those who funnel money into offshore accounts, something most families can’t even fathom.
The themes of the night were inclusion and partnership for Clinton, who used his speech to help map out the clear difference between the two parties, as he reiterated that Republicans aren’t reluctant to eat their own if they deviate one small inch from their party line.
One doesn’t have to have experienced living at the “ragged edge of the middle class” to have empathy for those who have. Both Warren and Clinton did have moments in their lives when they were at those ragged edges, and that’s what makes them powerful voices for their party to reach those voters who are still at that edge.
Joanne Bamberger is the author of “Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America.”
Roland Martin: President Clinton gives the GOP hell for one night
In sports, every coach desires a big game player who, no matter the game or the conditions or the opponent, will show up and deliver in the clutch.
In politics, President Bill Clinton is such a player.
The Time Warner Arena was constantly on fire Wednesday, each speaker giving the next a hard act to follow. But when the 42nd president of the United States took to the stage, there was no doubt that he still has it.
Every major applause line, Clinton hit. And he didn’t do so by offering up a lofty speech. It was homespun, down-home. The audience ate it up.
For the GOP, it had to be painful to see a former president back on the big stage delivering a big speech for an incumbent president facing a tough re-election campaign.
President Clinton gave the GOP hell for eight years. Wednesday night, he gave them hell for one more night.
Roland Martin is a syndicated columnist and author of “The First: President Barack Obama’s Road to the White House.” He is a commentator for the TV One cable network and host/managing editor of its Sunday morning news show, “Washington Watch with Roland Martin.”
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.