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!”