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Clinton, Obama, and the Triumph of Substance

CHARLOTTE—The roll of states is underway as I write this, the official nomination of Barack Obama just moments away. But my ears are still ringing from Bill Clinton’s nominating speech.

Last night I watched Michelle Obama from the press gallery. Tonight, I was on the convention floor. The crowd was enthusiastic about the warm-up act, from Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. But her voice couldn’t fully carry the hot rhetoric over the din. Then Clinton came on stage. He had the crowd at “hope.” Throughout the address, which clocked in at nearly an hour, delegates were cheering and pumping their fists. And if it was a bit more Springsteen than Green Day, with middle-aged fans remembering the old times more than youngsters celebrating the new, it still felt like a rock concert.

But Clinton’s ultimate goal wasn’t revving up partisans. It was winning over swing voters. And although I can’t say for sure whether he accomplished that, something tells me he did. He did it in a quintessentially Clintonian way—with a few zingers and “aw shucks” smiles, but mostly with detailed explanations of policy and substance.

The speech was as substantively thick as any I’ve ever heard and reminded me of the State of the Union speeches Clinton would give during his presidency. Those speeches were famously interminable, chocked full of enough ideas to fill two presidencies, let alone one. The pundits would inevitably pan the speeches: He was boring, he didn’t have lofty themes. Then the polls would come in: The public loved it. And while I assume some people really were listening for the details, most just appreciated the effort. Substance was a proxy for empathy, seriousness, and honesty.

So it was tonight, although the circumstances were a little different. Clinton had to focus on the past as much as the present and future. He had to tell a story about what had happened to the country in the last four years, what Obama had done, and why that reaction had put the country on the right course even if so much work remained to be done.

Although the polls suggest many Americans are inclined to believe that story, because they like Obama and believe he has their best interests at heart, that’s not an easy story to tell. But Clinton did. He reminded the voters that the economy really was in free-fall when Obama took office—and that, instead of losing 800,000 jobs a month, today it is adding 100,000. It’s not enough, Clinton conceded, but it’s progress. In what may be the most important line of the entire night, Clinton tried to talk to frustrated voters like adults: “Listen to me, now,” Clinton said. “No president—no president, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.”

Clinton also offered a detailed defense of Obama’s accomplishments—the creation of a new student loan system, the rescue of the auto industry, and, yes, the enactment of health care reform. He reveled in minutiae, whether it was describing the schematics of the auto supply chain or boasting that Obama’s student loan reforms would allow students to repay loans at a “a clear, fixed, low percentage of their income for up to 20 years.” (How many politicians could deliver that line and get cheers for it?) 

But Clinton was at his best attacking Romney and Ryan. He showed why Romney’s spending proposals would necessarily raise taxes on the middle class, devastate public programs for the middle class, and/or blow up the deficit. Clinton reminded voters that the welfare changes Romney and Ryan were attacking had been requested by Republican governors. He pointed out that Paul Ryan’s own budgets, both of them, included the same cuts to Medicare as Obama’s—and then he delivered the line that, I suspect, everybody will remember from this speech. “It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.” He even talked about Medicaid, the program that gets the least attention in the campaign even though the Romney proposals for it would cause the most damage. I’d quibble with some of Clinton’s suggestions, including one part of the Medicare discussion. (More on that soon.) But mostly his policy talk was spot-on accurate, not to mention impressively nuanced. 

I realize that the appeal of the speech depends heavily on whether you support the Obama agenda. But Ryan and Romney made Clinton’s task easier by embracing such extreme alternatives. You can take real issue with Clinton’s claim that Obama did all that he could to create jobs. You can’t really argue that Romney, who’s never put forward a plan for short-term job growth, would do more. You can quibble with Clinton’s suggestion that Obama has focused enough on the deficit. You can’t really suggest Romney, whose own budget plan is the stuff of fantasy, is more serious about it. You can disagree with Clinton’s argument that Obama has reached across the aisle. You can’t suggest, with a straight face, that Romney and the Republicans ever had the slightest interest in compromise.

In the end, Clinton's job tonight was straightforward: All he had to was to tell a story about the last four years—a story based on reality and filled with facts. But straightforward is not simple. It takes talent to give that kind of talk in a way that average Americans will grasp and take seriously. It’s a talent that Clinton, almost uniquely among American politicians, has.

Follow me on twitter @CitizenCohn