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

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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?

Or will he do little more than effectively attack Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan?

I imagine Clinton will have the easiest time in this speech if he focuses his attacks on the GOP foreign-policy agenda, both because it can be portrayed as a misguided desire to return to Bush-era thinking, and because Clinton will be adept at making the positive case for Obama's foreign policy, not least because his wife has played a substantial role implementing it at Foggy Bottom.

But I expect that, rather than leaving domestic policy to others, Clinton will wind up touting the economy America enjoyed during his presidency -- the speech his conservative critics are already trying to preempt -- and that, by comparison, Obama's America will come off looking shabby.  

Clinton once said that he likes his speeches to be "like a jazz music piece, where I've got a script," and then, in the middle, "there's this ad-lib." So it might not just be interested Americans who don't know what Clinton will say on behalf of a president whose decisions have surely differed from what he'd have done. Clinton may not know himself. That's why I'll watch with interest. Clinton is capable of giving as good a speech as anyone in America, sometimes.

UPDATE: A reader reminds me of one occasion when Bill Clinton did succeed at making an affirmative case for another Democrat: his 2004 speech recommending John Kerry, particularly its "send me" section. That speech bolsters the case that Clinton would do well to focus on foreign policy tonight, for he praises Kerry most effectively for his service in Vietnam, rather than his long record in the U.S. Senate. The line about how Clinton himself didn't volunteer to go there, while Kerry, despite being privileged enough to get out of it, volunteered, is self-effacing, and I wonder if Clinton would agree to a similar line about his record on Bin Laden versus Obama's record. "He did something that I failed to do, and that George W. Bush failed to do: kill Osama bin Laden." I imagine he's more sensitive about that than avoiding Vietnam. But it would be a great line.

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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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