John Kerry Finds His Voice in Time to Share Dem Spotlight With Bill Clinton

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Bill Clinton John Kerry
Photo: Getty Images

Have you ever noticed the way Democrats give their best speeches after they've already lost? Hillary Clinton's delivery on Tuesday was the best of her career. And last night, John Kerry delivered a searing sermon that would have probably been the most effective delivery of his entire life as a politician, had more networks tuned in to broadcast the whole thing. In a rousing, lusty voice, the Massachusetts junior senator alternated between call-and-response criticism of John McCain and fiery defense of Obama himself. He even attacked McCain's campaign flip-flops in detail, using the kind of lines that were used so effectively against Kerry himself in 2004. "Before he ever debates Barack Obama," Kerry warned, "John McCain should finish the debate with himself!" Ooh, the convention audience really ate that one up. At one point, they even started chanting "USA! USA!" in a demonstration of spontaneous patriotism of the kind he probably wishes he could have inspired four years ago.

And Bill Clinton. Well, Bill was never a political loser. But there's no doubt that he felt like he got the short end of the stick this summer, after his wife lost the primary and he began to feel snubbed by the Obama campaign. And so last night it felt like a happy, affirming surprise that we saw none of the red-faced Bubba of 2008, but only the silver fox of yore, with silver tongue to match. He eagerly invoked his own presidency, the most successful for a Democrat in the latter half of the last century, and reminded viewers of his own campaign struggles. "Together, we prevailed in a campaign in which the Republicans said I was too young and too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief," he said. "Sound familiar?" He carefully outlined Obama's qualifications for the presidency and addressed perceived weaknesses like national security, foreign policy, and even personal toughness — something Hillary didn't quite manage in her own speech. And unlike with his wife, the coverage of his address this morning lacks any of the questions left lingering after hers.

Compared to those two speeches, Biden's appearance last night (despite all the punches thrown and the last-minute appearance by Obama) seemed low-key. He, like Kerry, managed to slip and almost say "George Bush" when he meant to say "John McCain," a Freudian stammer that could prove useful in the future. And we learned more about him as a candidate and family man through his own address and the introduction by his son Beau. But it seems as though his best rhetoric (probably unscripted) is yet to come.

We've often felt that the Democrats have a bullied-child attitude in these campaigns. Whether they feel they are above fighting dirty, or they just don't know how to do it, they're left tongue-tied at the playground-tough-guy tactics of strategists like Karl Rove and Steve Schmidt. They're like the smart kids in eighth grade who reassure themselves that one day they'll be more successful with their wit and capability, while the guys pushing them around will just get older and fatter and more stupid. Unfortunately for the Democrats, in this metaphor, the election happens in the ninth grade, before they can outgrow the bullies.

All of the previous speeches (Michelle Obama's home run seems like ancient history now) have set the bar pretty high for Obama's huge convention closer tonight, and that's without the added pressure of the date: the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Aside from, perhaps, Bill Clinton, Obama is the most gifted orator to speak at this convention, but unlike Kerry or Hillary, Obama doesn't have the safety of speaking from a losing position. He has all the risks and pressures that come with being the only winner. The test will come tonight, when we see whether he is able to shake off that instinctive Democratic nervousness. Whatever the outcome, it will be a good indication of what kind of candidate he'll be for the rest of the campaign.