Bill Clinton has given some awkward convention speeches in his day. There was his infamous 1988 keynote address, when the young Clinton had too much to prove and spent too much time proving it: “B-O-R-I-N-G! B-O-R-I-N-G!” jeered the crowd, until he declared, “In conclusion … ,” at which point it cheered. There was 2000, when Clinton’s presence at Al Gore’s coronation so soon after his impeachment was a garish distraction. Eight years later, Democrats chewed their nails as Clinton spoke on behalf of Barack Obama, the man who had just defeated the 42nd President’s wife in a battle whose wounds were still raw. It is a measure of how much doubt there was about Clinton’s support for Obama that his speech that August night featured several variations of the phrase “Barack Obama is ready to lead”; Clinton, after all, had just spent the better part of 18 months arguing otherwise.
Democrats close to Clinton and Obama say that on Wednesday night, there is no reason for awkwardness. Although tensions remain between the current and former Democratic Presidents (and their allies), Clinton no longer needs to convince people that he believes Obama can do the job. On Wednesday, his mission will be to explain to voters why Obama’s policies will do more than Mitt Romney’s to improve their lives.
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Clinton will do so in methodical, even wonky terms. At age 66, he is less an impassioned rabble-rouser anyway; he has evolved into a grandfatherly, almost professorial figure. And he’s most comfortable when he’s describing complicated ideas in simple terms. “It won’t be red meat,” says a former Obama White House hand who has ties to Clinton’s circle. “It will be an almost prosecutorial case.”
There could be no greater testimony to Clinton’s exalted ex-President status than the fact that both the Democrats and the Republicans have featured him in their ads. Romney invokes Clinton’s record of reforming welfare to attack Obama for supposedly weakening the work requirements, as if he has somehow failed to honor the New Democrat theology; Obama, meanwhile, has featured Clinton in multiple ads and a campaign documentary narrated by Tom Hanks.
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Democrats say Clinton has already previewed Wednesday’s message, both in private fundraising appearances with Obama and in the recent television ad he taped for the President. (Title: “Clear Choice.”) At the heart of the case is Clinton’s own legacy. Obama represents the promise of returning to the good old days of the 1990s, when Clinton was in the White House, the economy was booming and Americans of all classes were reaping the benefits. “He speaks to the economic prosperity America enjoyed when Democrats were last in charge,” says one Obama-allied Democratic operative in Charlotte. “He is uniquely positioned to talk about the prosperity we had in the ’90s.”
Clinton and Obama’s shared vision of that prosperity is based on balancing the budget through higher taxes for the rich, while sparing the middle class and the poor from deep cuts to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. The 1990s economic boom, which began soon after Clinton signed a budget that Republicans blasted for enacting “the biggest tax hike in history” has always been one of the left’s most effective retorts to conservative warnings that higher taxes suffocate economic growth.
Clinton will also remind voters of what came after him. He often reminds his audiences that he left a budget surplus for George W. Bush, which soon became a massive deficit. Stepping off a plane in Charlotte on Tuesday, the party’s 1988 nominee, Michael Dukakis — arriving without an entourage after sitting in coach near the back of the plane — may have previewed the case that Clinton will make. “We don’t want to elect a Republican ticket that wants to go back and do what Bush did that got us into this mess in the first place,” Dukakis said. “The last thing in the world we need is more tax cuts for the wealthy and vouchers for Medicare. This is Herbert Hoover economics all over again.” Dukakis said Clinton is “much admired and respected by Americans” and that his support for Obama would be “an enormous asset for the campaign.” Dukakis, who has not exactly been embraced by the party since his defeat, will not be speaking at the convention this week.
If, as expected, Clinton celebrates his record from the 1990s, it will be quite an irony. Obama’s 2008 primary campaign was predicated largely on the idea that Clinton’s presidency had been a disappointment — too little real change, too much work left undone. Clinton found the critique maddening. In May 2008, Clinton groused that Obama “has said for months and months … that really there wasn’t much difference in how America did when I was President and how America’s done under President Bush.”
How times have changed. On Wednesday, Bill Clinton is likely to make virtually the opposite argument. And no one will applaud him more than Barack Obama.