The Big Dog can still hunt
Bill Clinton’s speech to the Democratic convention had been both heavily anticipated by a press corps looking for new evidence of tension between the Clinton and Obama camps and, we’re told, spiritedly contested by the two, with arguments over which time-slot the former president would be given and what he’d be allowed to say in it.
In the event, Clinton used his time to deliver a masterclass in the art of political performance, most certainly, but also in the more elusive science of electoral strategy. Along with a luminous endorsement of Barack Obama, he did him an even greater service: he framed the general election contest ahead and showed the Democratic nominee exactly how to take on John McCain.
The endorsement could not have been more glowing, doing exactly what his wife had failed to do the previous evening—not simply stating an obligation to back Obama but giving detailed, specific praise, listing the qualities that made him the right man for the job of president.
He lauded Obama’s “proven understanding, insight and good instincts”; his ability to inspire; his “intelligence and curiosity”; even his “family heritage” which equipped him to lead a diverse nation and an interdependent world. No one would be naive enough to believe that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are going to be buddies. The bitterness of the primary campaign was real and lingers, on both sides. But the ex-president gave Obama exactly the testimonial he needed, rebutting point by point the Republican argument that the Illinois senator is not ready to be president. In the process he surely laid to rest the disunity storyline that, hitherto, had dominated the convention coverage.
That was what Clinton was required to do, but he went way beyond that narrow remit. In simple but precise language he defined the terms of the coming contest. “Our nation is in trouble on two fronts,” he said. “The American Dream is under siege at home and America’s leadership in the world has been weakened.”
The problem thus defined, he showed how in both these crucial areas Obama has the right skills and ideas—while McCain does not. It sounds so simple—and in a way it is. But all week the Democrats have struggled to frame the choice between Obama and McCain and yet, in a few short sentences, the former president did it easily. “Here,” Clinton seemed to be saying to the party he led for eight years, “this is how you do it.”
So, for example, the Obama campaign wants to tie McCain to George Bush but they have not quite known how to deal with the fact that McCain has more than once opposed Bush. Clinton showed them how: “As a senator, [McCain] has shown his independence on several issues,” he conceded. “But on the two great questions of this election”—the ones Clinton himself had just defined—McCain “still embraces the extreme philosophy” of the Bush Republicans. Instantly, Clinton had shown how to neutralise McCain’s “maverick” appeal: just say that on the issues that matter, he’s with Bush.
And in one extraordinary passage, he offered the way to a full reconciliation with Obama. Recalling his 1992 campaign, he said: “The Republicans said I was too young and too inexperienced to be Commander-in-Chief. Sound familiar?” He was declaring that Obama was like him, almost his political heir—and that may be the greatest endorsement of all.
Barack Obama has great reason to be grateful to Bill Clinton today. He received both the backing of and a free tutorial from the man who was the best political campaigner in the second half of the 20th century. And after a vicious primary battle that had diminished his own stature, Bill Clinton also took a first, but large, stride towards restoring his own reputation.—