Were Democrats Actually Listening to What Clinton Said?

I liked Clinton's speech last night, though I don't know if I'd go along with Michael Tomasky's feeling that it was "the best political speech more or less ever". I especially liked a section Tomasky didn't mention, except that it was presumably covered by his observation that "There wasn't a thing he didn't touch on, and there wasn't a thing he didn't just blast out of the park."

And so here's what I want to say to you, and here's what I want the people at home to think about. When times are tough and people are frustrated and angry and hurting and uncertain, the politics of constant conflict may be good. But what is good politics does not necessarily work in the real world. What works in the real world is cooperation. (Cheers, applause.) ...

One of the main reasons we ought to re-elect President Obama is that he is still committed to constructive cooperation. (Cheers, applause.) Look at his record. Look at his record. (Cheers, applause.) Look at his record. He appointed Republican secretaries of defense, the Army and transportation.

Hmm. Clinton rightly attacks Republicans for their refusal to cooperate--but I sure didn't hear him tell Obama to stop trying. But that's exactly what progressive Democrats have been saying from the start. Confrontation is the only way. Isn't that the line? The best political speech more or less ever, according to Tomasky, repudiates the strategic advice progressives are pressing on Obama.

Speechcraft-wise, David Maraniss's assessment seemed on the mark to me.

Even as his speech went on and on toward the 48-minute mark, blasting way past his allotted time, Clinton did not seem rambling so much as direct and fast and eager. His voice grew more powerful if scratchy, his signature gesticulations became more frequent -- the thumb point, the finger point and finger roll, the open-handed can-you-believe-it lament, the raised eyebrows -- as he made the case for Obama and against the Republicans and moved through the issues one after another, from health-care reform to the auto industry bailout to Medicare to tax and budget cuts.

In classic Clinton style, the more he got going, the less inclined he was to follow his printed text, ad-libbing his way through a series of knowing asides such as, "I know; I get it; I've been there." He took his listeners on a kaleidoscopic tour of recent political history and deep into the Clintonian method, a modern-day variation of the Socratic method in which every question is worthy of consideration, and every opposing argument is given its due before being shredded.

Incidentally... Even though I liked the speech it annoyed me to see a lot of "fact-checkers" rather blithely giving it their stamp of maximum approval. Clinton's a politician; he spins; he just does it unusually well.

For instance, reporters at Bloomberg examined Clinton's arresting claim about employment growth under Republican and Democratic administrations--since 1961, 24 million jobs added under Republican presidents, 42 million under Democrats--and found it to be true. I object not because I disagree with the answer--the numbers are correct, just as Bloomberg says--but because it's such a careless question.

If you want to think intelligently about this, as opposed to just enjoying a deft rhetorical stroke, you start by noting that most presidents have much less impact on jobs than Congress and the Federal Reserve. But let's put this to one side. Let's accept for the sake of argument that  presidential influence is strong enough to overwhelm interest-rate policy and budgets built by Capitol Hill. In fact, let's suppose presidents are all that matters when it comes to economic policy.

Even then, it's obvious that performance follows policy with a lag. You wouldn't think Democrats would need reminding of this. As they rightly point out, it's ridiculous to blame Obama for the collapsing economy he inherited. If you're going to make even a semi-serious attempt to work out whether Democratic or Republican presidents are better for employment, you have to take account of the conditions presidents acquire from their predecessors.

In 2008 Larry Bartels's book Unequal Democracy tried to do this and did in fact find that growth, employment and economic equality all saw bigger improvements under Democratic administrations. Bartels considered the effect of lags. But he didn't do it very well, according to James Campbell, who critiqued that work last year:

Several studies of the post-war American political economy find that Democratic presidents have been more successful than Republicans. Most recently, Bartels (2008) found that economic growth had been greater and that unemployment and income inequality had been lower under Democratic presidents since 1948... This reexamination of these findings indicates that they are an artifact of specification error. Previous estimates did not properly take into account the lagged effects of the economy. Once lagged economic effects are taken into account, party differences in economic performance are shown to be the effects of economic conditions inherited from the previous president and not the consequence of real policy differences. Specifically, the economy was in recession when Republican presidents became responsible for the economy in each of the four post-1948 transitions from Democratic to Republican presidents. This was not the case for the transitions from Republicans to Democrats. When economic conditions leading into a year are taken into account, there are no presidential party differences with respect to growth, unemployment, or income inequality.

If you want more, Andrew Gelman engages Bartels and Campbell in an exchange of comments on all this. For what it's worth, I find Campbell's take most convincing. But the main and undisputed point is that to do what Clinton did--compare unadjusted changes in employment between the first and last months of a presidency across administrations--is daft. What Clinton said about this may have been true, but that doesn't make it useful or relevant. Clinton, of course, understands that perfectly.

Yet, as I say, it was very good politics--not least because the "fact-checkers" swallowed it whole.