In a Barn-Burning Speech, Bill Clinton Leaves Romney-Ryan Bleeding on the Ground

In what may prove to be one of the great blunders of the 2012 campaign, the Romney camp spent the past weeks elevating Bill Clinton's status as a means of attacking Barack Obama. In an interview with CNN this week, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan said, "Bill Clinton was a different kind of Democrat than Barack Obama... Bill Clinton worked with the Republicans to cut spending. Bill Clinton did not play the kind of political games that President Obama's playing." 

On Wednesday night, those efforts came back to bite them when Bill Clinton articulated the case for Barack Obama's re-election better than the Obama campaign itself has done so far. The “Big Dog” alternated between offering up some down-home populism and explaining, often in fine detail, the policy differences that divide Obama and Mitt Romney – and what, exactly, the latter's extreme ideology would result in for the American people.

Clinton did a far better job of fact-checking the Romney-Ryan campaign's claims than the media's self-appointed fact-checkers, and in doing so, he reminded the crowd that, regardless of any criticisms of Clinton's own policies that one might harbor, there is simply nobody in American politics today who can grab and hold an audience the way Bill Clinton can when he's on. And on Wednesday night, he was on.

In the days leading up to Clinton's speech, some of the leading hacks of our pundit class worked feverishly to create a dramatic storyline around the evening. Ben Smith suggested that Democrats were “wait[ing] nervously” to see if “private strategic differences” between the current and former president “might play out in public.” Lanny Davis urged Obama to follow Clinton's “legacy” by embracing the (nonexistent) Simpson-Bowles Commission recommendations and being nicer to his Republican opponents (no, really). And Fox News “Democrats” Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen wrote, “Mr. Obama should follow the lead of President Bill Clinton, who emphasized in both his terms in office the need for unity and consensus to achieve fiscal restraint. Inviting Mr. Clinton to speak at the convention Wednesday night is a sure sign that the Obama campaign understands the need to move to the center.”

But a polling memo released this week by Lake Research found that progressive economic messages were far better received by real voters than the tepid faux-centrism embraced by most Beltway bloviators, and nobody ever accused Bill Clinton of lacking keen political instincts. So, in a typically in-depth speech clocking in at almost 50 minutes, Clinton – whom Josh Marshall described as looking “like a caged animal let back out for a brief run in the wild” – systematically dismantled (perhaps “dismembered” is a better word) all of the mendacious rhetoric that has been offered up by the Romney campaign.

The Republican argument, said Clinton, is essentially: "we left him a total mess. But he hasn't cleaned it up fast enough so fire him and put us back in.” Then Clinton turned to the real problem with the Romney-Ryan plan: “arithmetic.”

People ask me all the time how we delivered four surplus budgets. What new ideas did we bring? I always give a one-word answer: arithmetic. If they stay with a $ 5 trillion tax cut in a debt reduction plan the arithmetic tells us that one of three things will happen: 1) they'll have to eliminate so many deductions like the ones for home mortgages and charitable giving that middle class families will see their tax bill go up two thousand dollars year while people making over $ 3 million a year get will still get a $250,000 tax cut; or 2) they'll have to cut so much spending that they'll obliterate the budget for our national parks, for ensuring clean air, clean water, safe food, safe air travel; or they'll cut way back on Pell Grants, college loans, early childhood education and other programs that help middle class families and poor children, not to mention cutting investments in roads, bridges, science, technology and medical research; or 3) they'll do what they've been doing for 30-plus years now – cut taxes more than they cut spending, explode the debt, and weaken the economy. Remember, Republican economic policies quadrupled the debt before I took office and doubled it after I left. We simply can't afford to double-down on trickle-down.

Clinton pointed out that since 1961, the GOP has held the White House for 28 years and the Dems have had it for 24. In that time, according to our 42nd president, 66 million jobs had been created in this country, 42 million of which came on the Democrats' watch. He concluded:

It turns out that advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics, because discrimination, poverty and ignorance restrict growth, while investments in education, infrastructure and scientific and technological research increase it, creating more good jobs and new wealth for all of us.

Then Clinton single-handedly dismantled the Romney campaign's central talking points. Of the charge that Obama had watered-down Clinton-era welfare reforms, he said, “the claim that President Obama weakened welfare reform's work requirement is just not true.” Clinton explained: “when some Republican governors asked to try new ways to put people on welfare back to work, the Obama Administration said they would only do it if they had a credible plan to increase employment by 20 percent. You hear that? More work.” He continued with a sharp elbow, saying, “But they keep running ads on it. As their campaign pollster said 'we're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.' Now that is true. I couldn't have said it better myself.”

Of the other Big Lie employed by the Romney-Ryan campaign, Clinton said, “When Congressman Ryan looked into that TV camera and attacked President Obama’s Medicare savings as 'the biggest, coldest power play,' I did not know whether to laugh or cry.” He noted that the Ryan plan featured the same “cuts” – they aren't cuts in Medicare benefits – that Obama enacted and Romney called a "raid" on Medicare, and added, “it takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.”

Clinton provided an accessible explanation of the philosophical divide in this election: “If you want a 'you're on your own, winner take all society' you should support the Republican ticket,” he said. But “if you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities – a 'we're all in it together' society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”

And he put the blame for the 'incivility' that has marked this campaign squarely where it belongs: on the Republican party, with half of its base believing that the president of the United States was born overseas (and a good number who believe he was born here but is nonetheless “un-American”). “Though I often disagree with Republicans,” he said, “I never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate President Obama and the Democrats.” He added: “When times are tough, constant conflict may be good politics but in the real world, cooperation works better... 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.”

Throughout the lengthy address, the partisan crowd cheered wildly, breaking into several rounds of chants for “four more years!” Then, after Clinton wrapped it up, Barack Obama emerged from back stage and the two men embraced.

After the speech, Republican strategist Alex Castellanos said on CNN, “This convention is done. This will be the moment that probably re-elected Barack Obama.” That's unlikely – there are very few persuadable voters in this cycle, and convention speeches don't have the same impact that they did before the proliferation of online media, when families learned much about the candidates sitting in front of their television sets. But for political junkies who savor the art of oratory, it was a speech that will be remembered for a long time to come.


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