By the time of CGI, it was clear that Clinton’s convention declamation had produced tangible effects, both micro and macro. Consider welfare. In the weeks leading up to the party conventions, the Romney campaign had been leaning hard into the issue, spending heavily on negative ads that featured Clinton as the admirable reformer whom Obama was undermining by “gutting” work requirements. In his speech, Clinton reviewed his own history on welfare, laid out Obama’s stance, and trashed the ads as “just not true.”
By relying on a validator from the opposite party who is, ahem, alive, Team Romney had taken an obvious risk. “When you do that, you have to make sure that the person you’re holding up as the referee isn’t going to throw a flag on you,” says Obama’s lead pollster Joel Benenson. “Clinton threw a flag on them pretty definitively; there probably wasn’t even an instant-replay review.” And within days of his doing so, the Romney ads on welfare disappeared from the airwaves, never to be seen again.
But the broader changes in public opinion following the speech were even more dramatic and significant. In all the prior polling, two of the most troubling numbers for Obama had been the percentage of voters who perceived the country as headed in the right direction (which had been stuck in the low thirties) and who believed the economy was improving (in the high twenties as recently as July). By the end of September, however, the right-track number had shot up to 40 in the NBC News—Wall Street Journal survey, and the percentage of voters feeling optimistic about the economy had risen to 44. And not coincidentally, the president, after lagging Romney consistently on the question of who is better equipped to handle the economy, was in a statistical tie with his rival.
From right to left, a consensus congealed that the speech had been the cause of the movement. Judging from their Clinton-heavy advertising and Obama’s relentless name-checking of WJC on the stump, the Obamans apparently agree. And, not surprisingly, so do the Clintonites. “Convention speeches usually get judged on the poetry, and the Democratic ones have been more known for expressing heroic failure: Ted Kennedy in 1980 or Mario Cuomo in 1984, which were great speeches but losing arguments,” notes one of them. “But as an exercise in political persuasion, it’s hard to think of a speech as effective as Clinton’s. Then when you add to that his age and that he’s been retired from office for twelve years, it’s like Ted Williams flirting with hitting .400 at the age of 39.”
Taken together, all of this led, as October dawned, to a sense of outsize optimism among Democrats that the election was basically in the bag—until, that is, Obama’s dismal, nay disastrous performance at the first debate in Denver, which induced an immediate and convulsive wave of near panic. Ever since then, Team Obama has been struggling to deal with (and even flailing in the face of) Romney’s Etch-A-Sketch maneuver and the strategic conundrum it presents: whether to continue attacking him as a right-wing extremist, shift to assailing him as a flip-flopper, or attempt a delicate synthesis of the two approaches.
It was Clinton who, at his meeting with Axelrod, Benenson, and Messina in Harlem nearly a year ago, helped the Obamans find their way when they first approached this fork in the road. According to more than one attendee, Clinton said, in effect, that pursuing the flip-flopper line would be a mistake, because centrist voters would conclude that Romney was only lurching rightward to get through the GOP primaries and would switch back to being more moderate if he attained the Oval Office—an outcome those voters would happily accept. Therefore, Clinton counseled, it made more sense to stop tarring Romney as “coreless,” as Team Obama had been doing, and instead paint him as excessively conservative and thus unacceptable to key voting groups such as suburban white women and Hispanics.
Precisely how Clinton would advise, or has advised, Obama to cope with Romney’s latest bout of shape-shifting in the two remaining debates is unknown (at least by me). But last week, at a rally in Las Vegas, Clinton emitted some vivid clues. Delivering lines soaked in sarcasm but softened with a gleeful smile and whimsical cadences, he shredded Romney six ways to Sunday.
“I had a different reaction to that first debate than a lot of people did,” Clinton said. “I thought, Wow, here’s old Moderate Mitt—where you been, boy? I missed you all these last few years! But I was paying attention … [when you were] Severe Conservative Mitt. That was how he described himself for two whole years, until three or four days before the debate, they all got together and said, ‘Hey, Mitt, this ship is sinking faster than the Titanic, but people are still frustrated about the economy, they want it fixed yesterday, so just show up with a sunny face and say, “I didn’t say all that stuff I said the last two years. I don’t have that tax plan I had for the last two years. You going to believe me or your lying eyes here?” ’ ” Clinton giggled. “And if I’d been the president, I might have said, ‘Well, I hate to get in the way of this—I miss you.’ ”