Bill Clinton's Challenge in Tonight's DNC Speech: Affirming Obama's Record

He's more comfortable attacking Republicans than making the case for another Democrat. Unlike in 2008, that may not be enough.

Four years ago in Denver, Bill Clinton made the case for Barack Obama, his wife's rival in the Democratic primary, as the next president of the United States. In so doing, he spoke for nearly 25 minutes, much of it spent lambasting Republicans and their previous eight years in the White House. His theme: "The American Dream is under siege at home, and America's leadership in the world has been weakened." To really understand Clinton's challenge tonight in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he'll again give a primetime speech urging voters to cast their ballots for Obama, it's useful to return to the case he made four years ago, and to remember how much of it was negative.

Clinton began with this list of particulars:

Middle-class and low-income Americans are hurting, with incomes declining; job losses, poverty and inequality rising; mortgage foreclosures and credit card debt increasing; health care coverage disappearing; and a big spike in the cost of food, utilities, and gasoline. Our position in the world has been weakened by too much unilateralism and too little cooperation; a perilous dependence on imported oil; a refusal to lead on global warming; a growing indebtedness and a dependence on foreign lenders; a severely burdened military; a backsliding on global non-proliferation and arms control agreements; and a failure to consistently use the power of diplomacy, from the Middle East to Africa to Latin America to Central and Eastern Europe.

After briefly speaking about how Barack Obama was the man to remedy these problems, he issued an even more blistering attack on John McCain that was really an attack on all Republicans:

The Republicans in a few days will nominate a good man who has served our country heroically and who suffered terribly in a Vietnamese prison camp. He loves his country every bit as much as we do. As a senator, he has shown his independence of right-wing orthodoxy on some very important issues. But on the two great questions of this election, how to rebuild the American Dream, and how to restore America's leadership in the world, he still embraces the extreme philosophy that has defined his party for more than 25 years. And to be fair to all the Americans who aren't as hard core Democrats as we, it's a philosophy the American people never had a chance to see in action fully until 2001, when the Republicans finally gained control of both the White House and the Congress. Then we saw what would happen to America if the policies they had talked about for decades actually were implemented. And look what happened. They took us from record surpluses to an exploding debt.

From over 22 million new jobs to just 5 million. From increasing families incomes to nearly $7500 a year to a decline of nearly $2000 a year. From almost 8 million Americans lifted out of poverty to more than five-and-a-half million driven into poverty. And millions more are losing their health insurance. Now in spite of all this evidence their candidate is actually promising more of the same.

Bill Clinton has proven time and again that he is good at attacking Republicans. He's never shown himself to be as adept at praising peers. This year, attacking the other side is likely to be less effective, and making an affirmative case for Obama more necessary, given that Obama has been the one wielding power for the last four years. Can Clinton make another Democrat look good not just in comparison to 8 unpopular years of GOP leadership, but on the strength of his achievements?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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