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Clinton is Better Than Obama at Explaining Why Obama is Better Than Clinton

The Romney-Ryan ticket loves to attack President Obama by comparing him to President Bill Clinton. Clinton was the “good,” bipartisan Democratic president who passed welfare reform and cut the budget. The economy thrived under his stewardship. He even hired David Gergen (who, children, before he was a professional moderate, worked in three Republican White Houses). “We are going to hear from President Clinton tonight in Charlotte,” Paul Ryan said earlier in the day. “My guess is we will get a great rendition of how good things were in the 1990s, but we're not going to hear much about how things have been in the last four years.”

But in his nominating speech Clinton showed no signs of wanting to bask in this newfound Republican admiration—perhaps because he remembers how deeply Republicans loathed him when he was president. (“Your president is just not that important for us,” Rep. Dick Armey, a future House majority leader, famously sneered in 1994; also there was the matter of that impeachment trial.) Nor did he avoid discussing “how things have been in the last four years.” Clinton talked about how it was, and how it is, and about what the GOP wants to do—what it always has wanted to do for three decades—and when, after nearly an hour, he was done I think Ryan (and maybe also Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell, who’ve worked tirelessly to knit Clinton into the mainstream of today’s Republican party) were probably ready to give him up.

How it was. Clinton took the stage after a brief video that showed news reports of the 1992 recession and then flashed the words (white letters on black background) “longest economic expansion in history” and “lowest unemployment in 30 years” while Clinton’s campaign theme song, “Don’t Stop,” played in the background. But when he spoke of his own record it was only to show how different the circumstances were. In 1994 and 1995, “We could see that the policies were working, that the economy was growing. But most people didn’t feel it yet. Thankfully, by [the election year of] 1996 the economy was roaring, everybody felt it.” Today, Clinton said, the recovery has begun, but it’s not like 1996; it’s more like 1994 or 1995. This is a refreshingly truthful answer to the entirely legitimate question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” Of course not, Clinton said. But the economy is improving. “Too many people do not feel it yet.” (If Clinton had wanted to be really honest he would have pointed out that “his” recession actually ended more than a year before the 1992 election, and that what he campaigned against that year was actually the slow start of a sluggish recovery. But that would be asking a lot.) 

Clinton said, “President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did. Listen to me, now. 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.” Obama “stopped the slide into depression and put us on the long road to recovery, knowing all the while that no matter how many jobs that he saved or created, there’d still be millions more waiting.”

How it is. The underlying awkwardness here is that Obama, even if he never gets re-elected, has already achieved more—simply by passing Obamacare—than Clinton did in eight years. In his speech, Clinton waited too long to make the health care argument for Obama’s re-election, but when he made it, he made it intelligently and forcefully. He started with the legally mandated insurance company refunds people have been getting over the last couple of months—under the law, 80 to 85 percent of the premium dollar must pay for health care, not profit or marketing—which was smart, because those refund notification letters have been going out not just to the minority of policyholders who have individual policies but also to the majority of policyholders who have large group policies. To most people it’s the first visible change that Obamacare has brought about. And because he was Clinton (i.e., constitutionally unable to skip past the fine print), he also pointed out that a lot of insurance companies are complying with the requirement by lowering their rates. Clinton also talked up something even Obama hasn’t talked up much (though he has given it a Web site)—an income-contingent “pay as your earn” student loan program that replaces crushing student debt with a sort of tithe capped at 10 percent of discretionary income. Clinton also described, with wonderful clarity, the benefit of Obama’s plan to double gas mileage: “No matter what the price is, if you double the mileage of your car, your bill will be half what it would have been.”

Clinton then took on the Republican attacks on Medicare—they’ve been answered so often I won’t elaborate them here—and on welfare reform:

They actually have charged and run ads saying that President Obama wants to weaken the work requirements in the welfare reform bill I signed that moved millions of people from welfare to work. [Jeers.] Wait, you need to know, here’s what happened. [Laughter.] Nobody ever tells you what really happened—here’s what happened. When some Republican governors asked if they could have waivers to try new ways to put people on welfare back to work, the Obama administration listened because we all know it’s hard for even people with good work histories to get jobs today. So moving folks from welfare to work is a real challenge. And the administration agreed to give waivers to those governors and others only if they had a credible plan to increase employment by 20 percent, and they could keep the waivers only if they did increase employment. Now, did I make myself clear? The requirement was for more work, not less.

A lot of Democrats have explained all this, but seldom with Clinton’s clarity. And few have made the crucial point—which Clinton took care to include—that flexibility is a particular imperative when unemployment is well over 8 percent. Welfare reform doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If recipients are to be moved into jobs, there have to be ... jobs. The original legislation didn’t really address this point.

What the GOP wants to do. This was the best part of the speech. The Republican argument, Clinton said, was “We left him a total mess. He hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough. So fire him and put us back in.” I haven’t heard it put more succinctly. Republicans always screw up the economy, Clinton noted, by pretending that you can bring the budget in balance while lowering taxes:

Now, people ask me all the time how we got four surplus budgets in a row. What new ideas did we bring to Washington? I always give a one-word answer: Arithmetic....[If Romney is elected Republicans will] just do what they’ve been doing for more than 30 years. They’ll go in and cut the taxes way more than they cut spending, especially with that big defense increase, and they’ll just explode the debt and weaken the economy. And they’ll destroy the federal government’s ability to help you by letting interest gobble up all your tax payments.

The “more than 30 years” bit is refreshing because it establishes something Democrats are usually reluctant to point out, which is that this stupid game didn’t start with the current crop of Republicans. The GOP’s rightward shift and its ever-growing conviction that tax cuts for the wealthy are the solution to all economic problems have continued during the past four years, but they began with Ronald Reagan, who, contrary to popular myth, was (largely for this reason) a genuinely lousy president. The only difference between then and now was that Reagan shied away from an overt embrace of trickle-down economics, while today’s Republicans preach it. “We simply cannot afford to give the reins of government,” Clinton said, “to someone who will double down on trickle down.” Amen.

It’s well-known that Clinton and Obama have never much liked each other. But that didn’t stop Clinton from giving a full-throated speech in support of Obama’s candidacy four years ago in Denver, when the wounds from Obama’s victory over Hillary Clinton were much fresher. And it didn’t stop him from giving a much better speech in Charlotte. Clinton may not like Obama, but he likes and supports what Obama’s trying to do, and he explains it better than Obama can (or at least has so far). If Clinton gets some ungenerous satisfaction from that, then I congratulate him for channeling his baser instincts to such wonderfully constructive ends, and I can’t imagine Obama feeling anything other than grateful.

Correction: An earlier version of this blog post misstated the title of the Fleetwood Mac song “Don’t Stop” as “Yesterday’s Gone.”