6 Things Bill Clinton Did Right in His Convention Speech

The Democrats' most recent ex-president remains one of their most powerful weapons.


CHARLOTTE, N.C.—A few contrasts are becoming apparent between the Democratic convention here this week and the GOP's gathering last week. One obvious difference is the enthusiasm gap: This gathering has sizzled consistently in a way rarely seen in Tampa.

Another big difference is the ex-president gap. Republicans wanted no part of George W. Bush and couldn't even rouse themselves to their standard stream of paeans to Ronald Reagan. The Democrats' most recent ex-president, on the other hand, remains one of their most powerful weapons, and they deployed him with relish this evening.

Displaying that he still has a rapturous rapport with his party, Bill Clinton made the most effective defense and endorsement of Barack Obama heard yet this week.

Here are a half dozen things he did right:

Story-telling. Clinton walked voters through the history of the Obama years, explaining how big the mess was that the president found, how his policies have worked, and how the GOP has obstructed. Obama making this case himself would have risked sounding defensive and overly negative. Clinton is perhaps the one figure in politics with the stature, accumulated good will, and folksy charm to make this case.

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Ad-libbing. As he does in most of his best speeches, Clinton periodically departed from his prepared text to add a punchy line or drive home a key point. I followed along on the Teleprompter, which I could make out from the press seats and was able to pick up some of his ad-libs. His admonishment of Rep. Paul Ryan for attacking President Obama for cutting Medicare while retaining the savings in his own budget—"It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did"—was an off-the-cuff comment. So was his riff that Republicans didn't like the fact that Clinton came from a place "where people still thought two and two was four" was another one. Ditto the line about politics not having to be a "blood sport."

Becoming a post-partisan partisan. Clinton's mournful recounting that extremist elements of the GOP had driven "two distinguished Republican senators" out of office was also not in his prepared remarks. It was part of a brilliant riff where Clinton adopted a post-partisan tone—speaking fondly of GOP presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Reagan, and even both Bushes—while effectively doing the very partisan work of demonstrating that the Republicans have become hostage to rigid and uncompromising ideologues.

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Lending a playbook. Even before Clinton took the stage, the evening was suffused with Clintonism. That's because the main message of the evening, and the week, is straight out of the classic Clinton playbook. Costco cofounder Jim Sinegal told the crowd that "America needs to be a nation where everyone follows the same set of rules." Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren bemoaned that "people feel like the system is rigged against them" and that hard work is no longer sufficient for success. The theme recalls Clinton's 1992 acceptance address in Madison Square Garden: "I was raised to believe the American Dream was built on rewarding hard work," Clinton said then. "But we have seen the folks of Washington turn the American ethic on its head. For too long those who play by the rules and keep the faith have gotten the shaft, and those who cut corners and cut deals have been rewarded." Sadly little has changed.

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Embracing Obama. Democrats got a visual that will play on an endless news loop for the rest of the night and tomorrow, and will probably feature in ads for the next couple of months when the current and former presidents warmly embraced on stage. Obama could wrap himself in Clinton and his aura not only literally but also figuratively. The former president went after the GOP in the style of a modern day happy warrior. He took on Republican attacks against Obama one by one—from criticisms of Obamacare to Medicare to welfare reform to the budget—and dismissed them with a smile and a knife. Do Republicans really want to keep asking if people are better off than they were four years ago?

Positioning Obama to go forward. The one thing Clinton only addressed mildly was the future—what happens if President Obama gets four more years. But by squarely taking on the GOP attacks and telling the Democrats' story of the last four years, Clinton positioned Obama to focus on the future tomorrow. He won't have to cover the ground Clinton did tonight. He'll no doubt set up a contrast with Romney, but he can do it in terms of Romney looking backward while he paints his road map for the next four years.

Overall there's little more Team Obama could have asked for from Clinton. Sure Clinton went a little long. But when you're Elvis, you get to sing as long as you want.