by John Nichols
Charlotte — The last Democratic president of the United States took a rock star turn at his party’s national convention Wednesday night, leveraging his outsized reputation as a master of governing — and, more importantly, campaigning — to make the case for the reelection of the current Democratic president. It was a remarkable performance by a political wunderkind turned senior statesman. And it provided a powerful reminder that in the ex-president competition — and there is an ex-president competition — Bill Clinton has defeated George Bush, overwhelmingly.
Where a week ago, Bush was the former president whose name dare not be spoken at his party’s national convention, Clinton was more than a revered elder returning to the warm embrace of his party’s convention: He was a defining figure.
Even Democrats who were never Clinton fans — and it is important to remember that there were a lot of them when he was president, and when he campaigned in 2008 to make former first lady Hillary Clinton, not Barack Obama, his partisan successor — agreed that Bill Clinton did a damn fine job of framing what is all but certain to be the Obama message for the remainder of the 2012 campaign.
“In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president’s re-election was pretty simple: We left him a total mess, he hasn’t finished cleaning it up yet, so fire him and put us back in,” declared William Jefferson Clinton, who took the extraordinary step of nominating the man who did not only succeed him but who defeated Hillary Clinton for the opportunity to do so.
“I like the argument for President Obama’s re-election a lot better,” Bill Clinton continued. “He inherited a deeply damaged economy, put a floor under the crash, began the long hard road to recovery, and laid the foundation for a more modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs, vibrant new businesses, and lots of new wealth for the innovators.”
Clinton was charming the crowd, of course. But he was doing much more than that. He was offering them a way of thinking with regard to where the second term of a Democratic president might lead a country that remains fretful about an ailing economy will ever fully recover. This was about the memory of a presidency that saw the creation of 22.7 million jobs, balanced budgets and surpluses. And, yes, it was about a measure of forgetfulness: especially with regard to Clinton’s support for failed free-trade agreements and dysfunctional deregulations of the banking and financial-services industries.
No matter what the measure Americans make of Clinton, he has political capital. And he spent a good deal of that capital Wednesday to frame an argument for Barack Obama’s re-election. That argument proposed a game change. No more apologies. No more nuance. Democrats, Clinton said, should laugh off the attacks they heard from Tampa last week and run proudly on a record that — if imperfect — remains far superior to that of their Republican challengers.
The former president asked the questions America is asking. And he answered them as he says Democrats must: “Are we where we want to be? No. Is the president satisfied? No. Are we better off than we were when he took office, with an economy in free fall, losing 750,000 jobs a month. The answer is Yes.
Despite a a bow to the old-fashioned bipartisanship of another age (hailing a Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, for sending troops to integrate the schools in Little Rock; recalling his work with Republican ex-presidents on international aid initiatives), Clinton came to this convention with a bluntly partisan bottom line:
The Republican narrative is that all of us who amount to anything are completely self-made. One of our greatest Democratic Chairmen, Bob Strauss, used to say that every politician wants you to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself, but it ain’t so.
We Democrats think the country works better with a strong middle class, real opportunities for poor people to work their way into it and a relentless focus on the future, with business and government working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity. We think “we’re all in this together” is a better philosophy than “you’re on your own.”
Who’s right? Well since 1961, the Republicans have held the White House twenty-eight years, the Democrats twenty-four. In those fifty-two years, our economy produced 66 million private sector jobs. What’s the jobs score? Republicans 24 million, Democrats 42 million!
Then came the critical comparison — not to the Republican position of the moment, but to his tenure:
I understand the challenge we face. I know many Americans are still angry and frustrated with the economy. Though employment is growing, banks are beginning to lend and even housing prices are picking up a bit, too many people don’t feel it.
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. By 1996, the economy was roaring, halfway through the longest peacetime expansion in American history.
President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did. No president — not me or any of my predecessors — could have repaired all the damage in just four years. But conditions are improving and if you’ll renew the president’s contract you will feel it.
I believe that with all my heart.
Clinton was asking the American people to trust him — and, by extension, President Obama. If they do, Obama could be well on his way to becoming only the second Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to serve two full terms.
Conventions are theatrical events. People applaud even for speeches that don’t merit much of a response. But Clinton’s nominating address was an epic performance, and it earned thunderous applause from a convention that loved him as much — perhaps a bit more — than the one that nominated him in 1992.
This is what former presidents, even those with egos modestly less developed than Clinton’s, live for. (And it is certainly what presidents live for when they imagine that, at the next election, a certain former first lady might herself become the commander-in-chief.) But not every former president is afforded the option.
There was no such opportunity provided the last Republican president. George Bush brought no message to the podium of the national convention that nominated the next Republican presidential contender. Bush didn’t have hall pass in Tampa.
Last week, at the Republican National Convention, the forty-third president was just another political has-been, glancing out from the Jumbotron in a video that wisely kept him in the shadows of his slightly more popular father. So flawed was the Bush-Cheney record — unpopular wars, New Orleans flyovers, burst bubbles, the collapse of the financial sector of the economy and a “corporate-welfare” bailout of the big banks — that even Republican convention speakers treated him like a political plague. A few speakers, like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, took swipes at wars of whim and assaults on civil liberties. Most speakers avoided even referencing the eight-year period when Bush and Dick Cheney ran the country — often with absolute majorities in the House and Senate. Even Bush’s brother, Jeb, could not bring himself to utter the name “George Bush.”
“The smart thing to do is focus on here and now and not give President Obama an opportunity to bring up George Bush’s presidency,” admitted former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. Fleischer said he was “sorrowful about it.”
But Democrats were amused. “It is no accident that Democrats celebrate our past president, while Republicans virtually banished theirs,” gloated New York Senator Chuck Schumer as he celebrated the fact that Clinton would follow him on Wednesday night’s convention program.
Political parties have always had complicated relationships with their former presidents, especially if those commanders-in-chief leave (or are voted out of) office at a young enough age to require invites to the quadrennial conventions where their successors are nominated and renominated. But never has the ex-president dichotomy been better summed up than in the past two weeks. Bush did not have a ticket to the stadium. Clinton was calling the plays — for the Obama campaign and, perhaps, for America.
Clinton had the crowd, as Obama will have to have them — not just Thursday night but through November. And Clinton closed Wednesday night’s speech as George Bush never could. Clinton roared toward the conclusion of his address with a declaration and a call: “We champion the cause for which our founders pledged their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor—to form…”
And the crowd concluded: “…a more perfect union.”
John Nichols is Washington correspondent for The Nation.