To those of us who have been watching the 42nd president of the United States make speeches since the 1980s, his prime-time effort tonight on behalf of his wife’s effort to become the 45th president was a bit of a surprise. The man whose oratorical signature is the broad historical sweep, the identification of key generational challenges, the defense of officeholders (most obviously himself, but also Barack Obama in 2012) who wrestle with resistance to progress in the political system and in both political parties — that Bill Clinton did not speak tonight. He did not speak of new covenants or bridges from one to another century. And when he talked of accomplishments — his own and Hillary’s — it wasn’t with his usual barrage of statistics.
No, Clinton tonight only took us through recent history to explain in considerable detail — sometimes with humor, sometimes with context, sometimes with the air of a proud grandpa boasting of his progeny’s athletic and academic achievements — what Hillary Clinton has contributed to public life, much of it before most Americans outside Arkansas had ever heard of her. It did not follow any specific schematic; its purpose seemed to be the sheer weight of example, and its conclusion his statement that you could drop HRC anywhere in the world (Benghazi? the Republicans will inevitably ask) and she would immediately make things better.
One apparent reason for this approach is her campaign’s fear that this could be a “change election,” and she is by virtue of sheer persistence in public life a “status quo” figure no matter what she does. And so he was at pains to show how very many times she was a “change-maker,” as the signs suddenly filling the arena labeled her. Only then did he do what the restive delegates craved: challenging the “cartoon” image of their nominee that the Cleveland convention so self-indulgently and mendaciously created.
It was an interesting decision to deploy him this way, and not at all what I expected. The Bill Clinton of yore would have set the stage for his wife as the next great “pragmatic progressive” leader building on the legacy of “safe change” that he and Barack Obama had established in two different decades of battle with a radicalized conservative movement and Republican Party — with the distinctive refinements only she could make after her history-making candidacy. But this speech wasn’t about history, but rather “her story,” in the literal sense of that term. It says a lot about what he feels he owes HRC that he bent his oratorical skills to this particular, and more limited, task. And it also means she’s probably going to have to make her own case — perhaps with some help from Barack Obama tomorrow night — for what another Clinton administration might mean.
Now it could be that becoming the first woman to be nominated for the presidency by a major party is all the “history” Hillary Clinton needs, and all this convention can absorb. That’s the sense you got at the very end of tonight’s session, when delegates waved “history” signs as her image smashed a symbolic glass ceiling. But an abundance of caution would dictate that, on Thursday night, she make the case her husband did not: that she’s exactly the kind of history-making president America needs right now, instead of that history-making nominee in Cleveland who sought to brush her aside as yesterday’s news.