Ex-president's 48-minute speech, much of it ad-libbed, was classic Clinton
Clinton promoted the value of bipartisanship in getting things done in the real world
He was able to re-frame Romney without alienating swing voters
Wednesday’s convention programming followed Tuesday’s standard script: red meat for the base in the early hours, capped off with a slightly sweeter offering in prime time for independent consumption.
But there was nothing routine about Bill Clinton’s speech. The 48-minute address – nearly 3,200 words of prepared text and a thousand more of classic Clinton riffs – checked off nearly every item on the Obama campaign’s wish list:
• Appeal to the persuadable who cite bipartisanship as a key quality: Clinton praised Eisenhower. He quoted Reagan. He even got an arena-full of loyal Democrats to cheer George W. Bush.
“Through my foundation, in America and around the world, I work with Democrats, Republicans and independents who are focused on solving problems and seizing opportunities, not fighting each other,” Clinton said. “When times are tough, constant conflict may be good politics but in the real world, cooperation works better.”
• Re-frame Romney without alienating bipartisanship-worshipping swing voters: Heading into Wednesday, Clinton’s presidential record and his assessment of Romney had played a starring role in campaign ads… for the Republican nominee. Both members of the GOP ticket have maximized that advantage by singing Clinton’s praises on the trail. But the risk for Romney had been that in highlighting and praising Clinton’s judgment, he invested in it a legitimacy that gave Clinton’s attacks Wednesday even more potency.
Clinton’s toughest punches came wrapped in silk gloves; his most brutal critiques were paired with a side of smiles, jokes and ad libs – the sort of delivery that allows an attack line to resonate far beyond the base.
• Push back on the GOP’s welfare attack: Despite near-universal pans from fact-checkers who have repeatedly found the claim that Obama has gutted the work requirement for welfare a false one, Republican and Democratic consultants alike had concluded Romney campaign’s summer push on that front had begun paying real dividends.
Enter the man who signed the original 1996 welfare reform bill into law.
“This is personal to me,” Clinton said. “….But I am telling you the claim that President Obama weakened welfare reform’s work requirement is just not true. But they keep on running ads claiming it. You want to know why? Their campaign pollster said, ‘We are not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.’ ” The Romney campaign made a gamble with its Clinton praise. Wednesday was a case study in the inherent pitfalls of that sort of approach.
• Cast Obama as his ideological heir and most likely to bring back the Clinton boom years: Clinton acknowledged the sluggish recovery but drew a direct parallel to his own presidency: “I experienced the same thing in 1994 and early 1995. Our policies were working and the economy was growing but most people didn’t feel it yet,” he said. “By 1996, the economy was roaring, halfway through the longest peacetime expansion in American history.”
Obama was starting with a much weaker economy, he said – and “no president” could repair the damage in a single term. “But he has the foundation for a new modern, successful economy of prosperity. If you renew the president’s contract, you will feel it. You will feel it.” In other words: an Obama second-term economy would look a lot like mine.
Obama has used some variation of that theme in his stump speech for months. But Clinton was able to draw a straighter line between their records. Republican strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos dubbed it “the moment that probably re-elected Barack Obama.”