Barack Obama has now delivered three speeches at three consecutive Democratic conventions. The first two were historic: the 2004 keynote in Boston that catapulted him into the stratosphere and the 2008 address at Invesco Field in Denver, in which he became the first African-American presidential nominee. But the third, which he unfurled on September 6, in Charlotte, North Carolina, was a different story, yielding a result that for Obama is as unusual as a moment of self-doubt: lukewarm and even bad reviews. No question, the speech paid a price for deviating from the loftiness and lyricism typical of big-stage Obama orations. It also suffered by comparison—not just to his prior convention barn burners, but to the pyrotechnic performance of his predecessor Bill Clinton the previous night.
Having been present in the convention hall for all but one of Clinton’s seven convention speeches, I can say with a fair degree of confidence that none was close to as good; indeed, there are Clintonologists of greater range and depth than I who maintain the speech was among the best in any venue that he has ever given. Certainly, the Maximum Canine has rarely radiated as much palpable pleasure (at least in public) as he did the other night in Charlotte. At the time, fortuitously, I happened to be stationed maybe a hundred feet from him on the floor of the Time Warner Cable Arena—so close I could feel the breeze from his tail wagging.
It’s impossible to gauge with any precision the electoral effects of 42’s or 44’s speeches: Though each was seen by north of 25 million TV viewers, many were die-hard Democrats whose votes would have been in the bag even if both men had stood mute and blown up balloon animals. The import of their addresses, however, extends beyond their qualities as speeches per se, for what Obama and Clinton were doing here was sketching their respective rhetorical road maps for the two-month sprint to Election Day. And while the routes they charted were not identical, if Obama can synthesize them, the resulting path will likely represent his best shot at reaching the finish line ahead of Mitt Romney.
This tale of two speeches begins with the stylistic disparities between their authors. Whereas Obama is a classic orator, trafficking at his best in soaring stanzas and almost preacherly cadences, Clinton operates more in the mode of an aw-shucks southern country lawyer (albeit one with a public-policy Ph.D.). And whereas Obama excels at the inspirational, the electrifying, and the galvanizing, Clinton’s skills are unparalleled when it comes to a quartet of earthier objectives: distillation, litigation, validation, and evisceration.
In Charlotte, Clinton vividly showed off his chops in all four areas—starting with his ability to boil down a complex argument to its bare (and highly memorable) minimum. A bazillion words have been expended in this election cycle alone trying to codify the core divergence in values between Democrats and Republicans. But for Clinton, it required just eighteen: “We believe that ‘We’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘You’re on your own.’ ” And his encapsulation of the GOP’s case against Obama was at once concise, precise, and hilarious. “In Tampa,” he said, it “was actually pretty simple, pretty snappy. It went something like this: ‘We left him a total mess. He hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.’ ”
When it came to litigation and validation, Clinton was more impressive still. Over the weekend before the convention, the Obamans had been comprehensively befuddled by the most basic question any incumbent faces: Is the country better off today than when he assumed office? For Clinton, this was child’s play: “When President Barack Obama took office, the economy was in free fall. It had just shrunk 9 full percent of GDP. We were losing 750,000 jobs a month. Are we doing better than that today? The answer is yes.” And then he turned to vouching for Obama, making a potent claim on his behalf that he himself cannot. “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 said emphatically.
And then there was the evisceration. Maybe no politician in our lifetimes has been a more adroit wielder of a serrated-edged blade than Clinton, in part because he generally roots his attacks in policy, in part because he slices and dices his opponent with a smile. Consider his gutting of Paul Ryan on the question of Medicare, which the Republican ticket accuses Obama of raiding to the tune of $716 billion in order to fund Obamacare. After running through an array of details designed to show that, in fact, the president had acted to strengthen, not weaken, the program, Clinton set his sights on the Republican running mate. “When Congressman Ryan looked into that TV camera and attacked President Obama’s Medicare savings as, quote, ‘the biggest, coldest power play,’ I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Clinton said—laughing. “Because that $716 billion is exactly to the dollar the same amount of Medicare savings that he has in his own budget! You got to give him one thing: It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did!”
Obama, like Clinton, is too proud ever to admit to taking lessons from anyone on political performance, especially from the podium. But in his own speech the next night, there were any number of places where you could hear echoes of WJC: in the lighthearted jabs at the Republicans’ refusal to lay out their policy agenda in detail for fear that everyone would see it as same old same old; in his comment that “the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades”; and, explicitly, in the ad-lib in which he called out Clinton by name, referring to another of 42’s riffs (“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”) in the service of strafing Romney’s economic plan.
Obama, of course, has his own brand of humor—more dry and sarcastic than Clinton’s by a country mile—which he unleashed on Thursday night. “My opponent and his running mate are [long pause] new to foreign policy. But from all that we’ve seen and heard, they want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly. After all, you don’t call Russia our No. 1 enemy—not Al Qaeda, Russia—unless you’re still stuck in a Cold War mind warp. You might not be ready for diplomacy with Beijing if you can’t visit the Olympics without insulting our closest ally.”
Lines like this are more (or can be more) than merely funny. In the service of a clear and overarching purpose, they can be employed to devastating effect. Taken in combination, the Obama and Clinton critiques of Romney-Ryan will be central to the strategy that 44 adopts in the home stretch, and especially on the debate stage against the former Massachusetts governor. Underneath the guffaws of the foreign-policy jape above is a withering indictment of Romney as an amateur, a poseur, a man patently unfit to be commander-in-chief. And in Clinton’s data-heavy assault on the Republican agenda, there is an emperor’s-new-clothes play that Obama will drive hard throughout the fall.
Where Obama could be more mindful of Clinton, though, is in the readiness and willingness—and eagerness, even—to litigate his record in detail. All too often, Obama has shied away from defending, forthrightly and loudly, his main domestic achievements: the stimulus and health-care reform. (Obama mentioned the first not at all and the second only en passant in his speech.) Clinton, by contrast, dove in neck deep and made a case so persuasive that even many delegates were stunned by its effectiveness. “Why doesn’t Obama do that more?” was a common refrain in Charlotte, and Clinton plainly agrees. There was never a law he passed that he wouldn’t brag on; Obama should do the same.
In some areas, to be sure, it makes more sense for Clinton to do the talking—welfare reform preeminent among them. For weeks, Team Romney has been pounding Obama for allegedly “gutting” the law that Clinton passed in the nineties by “dropping work requirements.” The ads, which featured images of WJC, have plainly been gaining traction with the working- and middle-class white voters whom the Republican ticket must carry by vast margins to have any hope of winning. In his Charlotte speech, however, Clinton decimated the ads with as much force as he could muster. “This is personal to me,” he said. “The claim that President Obama weakened welfare reform’s work requirement is just not true. But they keep on running ads claiming it. You want to know why? Their campaign pollster said, ‘We are not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.’ ” A long pause. “Now, finally I can say: That is true.”
For Romney-Ryan, Clinton’s engagement on this issue—and more broadly, as he’s made it clear he wants to hit the road extensively for Obama this fall—is a nightmare. But it is one of their own creation. Had they not elevated Clinton in the first place, putting him in ads, using him as an example of the kind of “good Democrat” that Obama definitively is not, 42’s repudiations of the claims and his validation of 44 might have less purchase. Instead, Team Romney finds itself defenseless, unable to defang the Big Dog, even as Obama counts his lucky stars that the old hound is off the leash.