Bill Clinton Shows How It's Done

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In an era of substance-free rhetoric, Clinton blew away the Democratic convention with a dense, didactic act of political persuasion.

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CHARLOTTE -- Bill Clinton spoke for nearly 50 minutes. His speech was dense, didactic and loaded with statistics and details. The paper version handed out to reporters took up four single-spaced pages in a tiny font, and he departed from it frequently. It may have been the most effective speech of either political convention.

The reason wasn't Clinton's oft-hyped "charisma," some kind of intangible political magnetism. Sure, Clinton has that -- a remarkable looseness and intimacy that draws listeners powerfully into his aura. But the strength of his speech came in its efforts to persuade.

Clinton made arguments. He talked through his reasoning. He went point by point through the case he wanted to make. He kept telling the audience he was talking to them and he wanted them to listen. In an age when so many political speeches are pure acts of rhetoric, full of stirring sentiments but utterly devoid of informational value -- when trying to win people over to your point of view is cynically assumed to be futile, so you settle for riling them up instead -- Clinton's felt like a whole different thing. In an era of detergent commercials, he delivered a real political speech.

He began with an appeal to bipartisanship -- a clever and unexpected turn in a partisan speech, one pitched directly to independent voters in their living rooms. "Nobody's right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day," he said. "And every one of us and every one of them, we're compelled to spend our fleeting lives between those two extremes, knowing we're never going to be right all the time and hoping we're right more than twice a day." Then he pivoted to attack: "Unfortunately, the faction that now dominates the Republican Party doesn't see it that way. They think government is always the enemy, they're always right, and compromise is weakness."

Clinton set up the Republican argument ("the same old policies that got us in trouble in the first place"), then took it on. "I like the argument for President Obama's reelection a lot better," he said. "He inherited a deeply damaged economy. He put a floor under the crash. He began the long, hard road to recovery and laid the foundation for a modern, more well- balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs, vibrant new businesses and lots of new wealth for innovators."

The auto bailout. Energy policy. Student loans. Health care. Welfare. Clinton rattled off statistics and multi-point explanations for all of them. (You can read the whole thing -- all 5,985 words of it -- here.) When, 40 minutes in, he said, "Now, let's talk about the debt," it seemed like he might finally lose the crowd. But he pulled it off, making a brief detour to decry voter-identification laws before bringing it home.

"My fellow Americans, all of us in this grand hall and everybody watching at home, when we vote in this election, we'll be deciding what kind of country we want to live in," he said. "If you want a winner-take-all, you're-on-your-own society, you should support the Republican ticket. But if you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibility, a we're-all-in-this-together society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden."

Clinton evoked nothing more than a country lawyer earnestly trying to save his client, and willing to exhaust every argument at his disposal to do it. He seemed as if he would not rest until he had you on his side, and while he was having fun and hamming it up, there was an undisguised earnestness that forced you to actually consider what he was saying.

"Folks, whether the American people believe what I just said or not may be the whole election," Clinton said. "I just want you to know that I believe it. With all my heart, I believe it."

A few minutes after Clinton was finished, a spokesman for the Romney campaign delivered its response: ""President Clinton drew a stark contrast between himself and President Obama tonight." He did nothing of the sort, of course. But the point was, the GOP knew it wouldn't get far taking on Clinton. Instead, the Republicans could only hope he was so good at pumping up Obama that Obama might pale in comparison. In its way, that was the greatest tribute of all.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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