CHARLOTTE, NC — Wednesday was Bill Clinton’s night at the Democratic National Convention, and the former president seemed to be loving every minute of it. The house loved him, too — the near hour-long speech was interrupted by so many standing ovations that at times it felt like the roof would blast right off the Times Warner Cable Arena.
It was pure Clinton: folksy charm, persuasive argument and a mastery of political theater that few can match. Campaign advisers to President Barack Obama are hoping that “Bubba” can help deliver the undecided voters who may ultimately decide this heart-stoppingly close election.
The 66-year-old former president looked fit and trim as he strolled to the podium to officially nominate Barack Obama for president of the United States.
“We're here to nominate a president, and I've got one in mind,” he drawled to laughter and applause.
The former president was gracious and admiring of the incumbent of the White House, and congratulated him for being “a man who had the good sense to marry Michelle Obama.”
The first lady was in the hall, and cameras showed her beaming and clapping at the compliment.
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Clinton repeatedly departed from his prepared remarks, taking every opportunity to embellish and embroider. A born performer, he seemed to thrive on the adulation of the crowd.
A man whose record as president included large budget surpluses and unprecedented bipartisan cooperation, Clinton’s speech was designed to disarm the main Republican attacks on Obama, regarding the deficit and the bitter political gridlock that has made it all but impossible to govern in Washington.
“When times are tough, constant conflict may be good politics, but in the real world, cooperation works better,” said Clinton. “Unfortunately, the faction that now dominates the Republican Party doesn't see it that way. They think government is the enemy, and compromise is weakness.”
Obama is the antithesis of this rigid stance, Clinton maintained.
“One of the main reasons America should re-elect President Obama is that he is still committed to cooperation,” said Clinton. “He appointed Republican secretaries of defense, the army and transportation. He appointed a vice president who ran against him in 2008, and trusted him to oversee the successful end of the war in Iraq and the implementation of the recovery act. And Joe Biden did a great job with both. He appointed Cabinet members who supported Hillary in the primaries. Heck, he even appointed Hillary!”
The main theme of the night appeared to be “It’s all the Republicans’ fault,” as speaker after speaker pointed to the GOP’s role in creating the deficit, stalling recovery, and waging partisan warfare to the country’s detriment.
Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen mounted a strong and snappy attack on the Republicans, specifically on vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who he said was the principal architect of the exploding deficit.
“The Republicans had this gigantic clock in the arena showing the size of the national debt,” said Van Hollen, referring to the deficit clock mounted in the Tampa Bay Times Forum during the Republican National Convention last week. It was meant as a symbol of what the party considers Obama’s reckless spending and inability to make the cuts necessary to save the US economy.
Van Hollen had a different take.
“If Paul Ryan was being honest, he would have pointed to that debt clock and said: ‘We built that’” said the Maryland representative, mimicking an oft-repeated Republican campaign slogan.
“When President Clinton left office, America had projected surpluses of trillions of dollars over the next decade,” he continued. “Then came two wars, two huge tax cuts tilted to the wealthy and a new entitlement. Republicans didn't pay for any of it. Paul Ryan voted for all of it.”
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Obama inherited the problems, and was doing his best to fix them, said Van Hollen.
“So when President Obama took office, the Republicans handed him the bill: projected deficits of trillions of dollars. Congressman Ryan, America is literally in your debt.”
Democratic Whip, Representative Steny Hoyer, also of Maryland, all but accused the Republicans of actively sabotaging the recovery. “For four years, Republicans in Congress have pursued a strategy of confrontation, refusal to compromise and obstruction,” he said. “As the Reverend Jesse Jackson describes it, they want to drown the captain, and they're prepared to sink the ship to do so.”
Fact checkers have taken issue with many of the numbers and claims that the speakers cited; on job creation, deficit reduction, the effects of the Affordable Care Act and the future of Medicare are all highly partisan issues that can be sliced and diced in various ways to bolster a political point.
This is hardly surprising in an election campaign, and will doubtless continue, or even intensify, in the scant two months until the presidential election on Nov. 6.
At the end of Clinton’s speech, Obama made a surprise appearance, coming out to give his predecessor a big hug and escort him off stage.
At least, he tried to. But the former president would not relinquish the spotlight so easily. He stopped to glad-hand everyone in sight, leaving Obama, finally, to walk off without him.
The incident served to highlight the difference between the two men. Clinton relishes attention, basks in the admiration of the public, and can work a room like few other politicians.
As Maureen Dowd points out in a recent column in the New York Times, Obama is just the opposite.
“I remember the first time I realized that Barack Obama was not going to be another Bill Clinton,” she begins, pointing to a day on the campaign trail in 2008, when “the diffident debutante,” as she called Obama, shunned the press and went to his room.
“Clinton probably would have chatted with one reporter about Gabriel Garcia Marquez, another about economic philosophy, and a third about prowling the Arkansas backwoods to find antique cameos for Hillary,” writes Dowd.
But it is to Obama’s benefit to have Bill Clinton on his side. The two have never been close, and at times during the 2008 primaries, when Hillary Clinton was Obama’s main opponent, their relationship was downright acrimonious.
But Clinton seems willing to let all that go now, and he gave his all to Obama Wednesday night.
“I love our country — and I know we're coming back,” said the elder politician, a catch in his voice. “For more than 200 years, through every crisis, we've always come out stronger than we went in. And we will again as long as we do it together. We champion the cause for which our founders pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor — to form a more perfect union.
“If that's what you believe, if that's what you want, we have to re-elect President Barack Obama,” he finished, to thunderous applause.
Obama’s task now — and it is a big one — is to make sure his own speech, to be delivered Thursday night on the same stage, is as outstanding as his predecessor’s. Bill Clinton can be a hard act to follow.