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The Dog and the Preacher

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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.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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