Bill Clinton Does President Obama's Dirty Work

The former president calls on his ability to go negative without getting personal, taking a razor to the Republican ticket.


CHARLOTTE -- Former President Bill Clinton on Wednesday framed the election in ways that Barack Obama simply cannot -- so negative and nostalgic that his was a dirty job. One better left to a master politician who will never face voters again.

In a folksy yet brutally partisan address that captivated his fellow Democrats, Clinton branded the GOP as extremist and obstructionist and hateful. He cast the 1990s as good times worth repeating under a Democratic president. And he took the central question of Mitt Romney's campaign -- "Are you better off than you were four years ago" -- and turned it on its head.

"No president -- not me or anyone before me -- no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years," Clinton said of the economy. "But conditions are improving and if you'll renew the president's contract you will feel it."

With a classically Clinton address -- on message and a bit too long -- the former president said things Obama could not due to personal and political limitations. By doing so, he cleared a path for Obama to be forward-looking and aspirational in the convention-closing address Thursday night, and he defined the race better than Obama is capable of.

Obama joined Clinton on stage after the 50-minute address, a powerful show of unity between two former political rivals (Obama beat Clinton's wife for the 2008 Democratic nomination).

A harshly negative acceptance speech would jeopardize Obama's likeability ratings as well as his presidency, his advisers believe. And yet their strategy requires that Romney be disqualified as an alternative to the embattled president.

So that left Clinton doing what he does so well.

"They think government is always the enemy, they are always right and compromise is weakness," the former president said of the GOP. Democrats, meanwhile, "focus on solving problems and seizing opportunities and not fighting all the time."

One of the tools that made Clinton such a good politicians was his ability to go negative on an opponent without appearing overtly personal. He killed with razor slices, not ax handles. His back-handed compliments left scars. And he relished the role of victim when it made his opponent look like a bully.

Remember, he used a government shutdown and impeachment to brand the GOP as extremist.

His old rivals will tell you about the classic Clinton bait-and-switch: Start a sentence with a compliment and end it with a punch. This is what Clinton did Wednesday night: "Though I often disagree with Republicans, I never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate president and the Democrats."

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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