The omens were not good for “The Comeback Kid:” preceding his speech was an embarrassing, nasty floor fight over whether the Democrats would restore the mentions of God and the declaring of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in the party platform. There was the awful speech by Sandra Fluke, poorly delivered, self-sanctimonious and disappointing to all but die-hard partisans who would be happy with any speaker articulating liberal shibboleths.
But then there was Bill.
In the last 50 years there have been great presidential orators: John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton – in that order, but all are exceptional. To be a great orator doesn’t require perspicacity or insight; it just requires exquisite delivery, including good timing, powerful, in-command language and stylistic and substantive fearlessness: the willingness to take on uncomfortable issues and make a compelling case for your side.
Until Bill Clinton spoke at the Democratic National Convention, the elephant in the room – sorry – was the absence of any direct addressing of why the economy after nearly four years of the Obama presidency is in shambles and why we should believe it would get any better?
Clinton took on every issue and persuasively so, if verbosely, as is Clinton’s wont, for all those from the center to the left.
Unemployment high? Obama “[knew] no matter how many jobs he saved or created, there’d still be millions more waiting…;” “He put a floor on the crash…laid the foundation…that will produce millions of good, new jobs, vibrant new businesses, and lots of new wealth for innovators…[and] are we better off than we were when he took office?...[t]he answer is yes…[i]f you look at the numbers, you know employment is growing, banks are beginning to lend again, housing prices have even begun to pick up…no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.” There’s the answer to “Are we better than we were four years ago.” That’s how Democrats should answer that question.
He used Reagan against the Republicans: “As another president once said, ‘there they go again’” in cutting the budget and allegedly hurting the “middle class and poor children.”
The praise of expanded, collectivist government action was continued in the words of Clinton. He did not reference the increased dependency on government, but the relative advantages that Big Brother (not his term) brings: gas mileage regulations, energy policy (no mention of the Keystone oil pipeline, of course) and of course education, education, education -- an automatic crowd-pleaser for audiences who know nothing more about the value of “investment”in education than the iteration of the god-term “education.”
Selective, but undiluted, praise of Administration Medicare politics, health care (Obamacare– Clinton used this term but took away its derisiveness; good rhetorical move) and its initial economics, which do not kick in until 2014, set the crowd atwitter and Twitter atwitter…
He countered some of the most telling attacks on the President, including his allowing waivers for governors to lessen work requirements for welfare. Clinton claimed that outcome of this policy change – and he seemed to admit it does constitute policy change – would be more work required, not less, but receiving a waiver requires simple claims that employment will increase, not that individual welfare recipients establish a credible work ethic.
Clinton acknowledged the deficit and debt problem without detailing its growth, but claimed that Obama’s policies of debt reduction would be more effective than Romney’s. You may argue that this is fallacious reasoning and pie-in-the-sky economics and does not account for the precipitous increase in the deficit and debt, but Clinton addressed issue after issue on which no other major speaker had touched. The tax cuts’ relationship to small business and employment was not addressed, but he addressed the lack of specificity in Romney’s general plans. And, in detailing revenue cuts, he asks what are you going to cut that wouldn’t touch middle class interests. He didn’t mention the fact that in today’s collectivist state, every change hurts somebody’s government-linked interest.
There was precious little on the excellence of the incumbent Vice President other than the invocation of Joe Biden’s name. Apparently no rhetorical skills can make a silk purse out of that sow’s vice presidential bumbling.
None of this carries the gestalt of the brilliant oratorical effort by the newly trim and perennially unbowed ex-president. The convention went wild over every well-chosen shot as well as every unclear shot taken at the Republicans, whom Clinton described as, unlike President Obama, wholly partisan detesters of the Democrats. I guess he is ignoring charges that Romney is a felon and doesn’t pay his taxes and put his dog’s life in jeopardy a decade ago by having him ride atop of his van.
Clinton, again, took on the major issues of the campaign, and that is what the convention is democratically obligated to do, but had not done until his address. As with all rhetorical efforts, this omitted some critical information and interpreted over-positively what President Obama has done and is likely to do. But he engaged the major disputed points-at-issue.
My closest friend is a centrist Democrat and a Bill Clinton devotee. He thinks in rhetorical ability and policy understanding that President Clinton is the best the Democrats have ever had. I could hear him chortling last night, but great speeches do not always or even usually translate into electoral advantage. But if this Clintonian tour de force does, I shall not be surprised.
But I shall be disappointed.
Professor Vatz teaches Political Persuasion at Towson University and is author of The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012, 2013).