Will Bill Clinton’s best effort be enough?

Story highlights

The Democratic Party convention is taking place this week in Philadelphia

Ed Morrissey: Bill Clinton gave it his best effort on a night that Hillary Clinton absolutely had to have it

Editor’s Note: Ed Morrissey is senior editor at HotAir.com, a columnist for The Week and The Fiscal Times, and author of “Going Red: The Two Million Voters Who Will Elect the Next President – and How Conservatives Can Win Them.” The views expressed are his own.

CNN —  

Traditionally, the spouses of major-party nominees get a speaking slot at the national convention to humanize the candidate. Former presidents speak to remind the faithful of their history. Bill Clinton falls into both categories, but he had a far more difficult task in closing out the second night of the Democratic convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday night; he needed to find a way to knit the party back together again.

That’s a tall order, and not just because the evening started with a walkout involving hundreds of Bernie Sanders delegates, according to one estimate. A generation has passed since the former president ascended to lead the Democratic Party as the first baby boomer major-party nominee, and then defeated the last of the World War II presidents.

Edward Morrissey
Edward Morrissey

Back then, Bill used his enormous natural political talent to fuse the New Left with working class Democrats, while “triangulating” on the Republican agenda to carve a centrist path in governance.

Twenty-four years later, it’s not Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party. It might not be Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party. If it hadn’t been for the establishment-protecting superdelegates and the Democratic National Convention’s efforts to tip the primary scales in her favor, it would likely have been Bernie Sanders’ Democratic Party – and on Tuesday in Philadelphia, with hundreds of empty seats staring back at the stage, it certainly looked as though it was.

Twenty-four years later, Bill Clinton isn’t the same, youthful physical force, either. At times he seemed frail and at one point a bit distracted. However, Clinton proved that his political instincts haven’t dimmed much at all. Rather than take on the task of unifying through direct debate, Clinton delivered a masterful soft-sell by walking through a personal history of his wife that tried to answer the divides in the party.

The former president offered a self-deprecating view of his courtship of Hillary Rodham, loving memories of their time as parents, painting a touching picture of a marriage that has endured some very public humiliations.

But woven within these memories were specific reasons for dissenters to reconsider. For those who place racial disunity at the top of their priorities, Bill offered the Hillary who worked on fighting segregation. System rigged? Here’s the Hillary who registered Mexican-American voters in Texas. How about education? Bill talked about the Hillary who launched preschool education reform in Arkansas. For two-thirds of the speech, Clinton didn’t challenge the divisions in the room, but instead spun tales that put Hillary squarely within each of the groups in the Democratic coalition at loggerheads this cycle.

Only after walking the audience to the nominee’s Senate years did Bill finally push the hard sell. Without ever making an explicit reference to Donald Trump, Clinton demanded that Democrats recognize Hillary as their focal point of unity. Clinton dropped the avuncular tone and the sepia-toned recollections to summon whatever will and charisma he has left to push his old party back into line.

Will it work? Time will tell. Bill Clinton gave it his best effort on a night that Hillary Clinton absolutely had to have it. Yet the fact that many Sanders delegates continued to occupy the media tent rather than their seats in the arena during the speech suggests it’s still more likely that the Clintons will have to face the fact that this is not their party any longer, and that their best hope is that Sanders supporters will detest Trump more than they distrust Hillary.