Bill Clinton and the Charlotte Home-Run Derby

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Brendan Hoffman / Prime

Former President Bill Clinton speaks in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 5, 2012

With two nights of the Democratic National Convention down, it’s safe to draw a clear comparison between Charlotte and Tampa. At last week’s Republican affair, you had the sense of fingers crossed in the hope that the big speakers wouldn’t blow it, and a sense of relief when they didn’t. (Or frustration when they did, as many people said about Chris Christie.) Ann and Mitt Romney gave strong speeches that helped their causes, but those speeches seemed more like stand-up doubles rather than home runs.

Bill Clinton’s blockbuster speech on Wednesday was the highlight of a week that so far seems like a home-run derby. One after another, Democratic speakers have been making full contact with the ball — and their audiences. Those who’ve been watching at home must sense how much more energy is roiling in Charlotte than it ever did in Tampa. Republicans have been the “motivated” ones in recent years, but the past two weeks suggest something might be shifting.

(PHOTOS: The Democratic National Convention)

It was actually the Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren and Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke who spoke most directly to the party’s base on Wednesday. Their speeches made strong, even aggressive cases for liberal values — and hit the GOP with gusto. With remarkable poise for a woman in her mid-20s who is new to the national stage, Fluke went after the GOP for positions she called “an offensive, obsolete relic of our past,” exploiting the party’s radicalized image on abortion rights in the wake of Rush Limbaugh, Todd Akin and distinctions on the nature of rape. Warren was a voice of outrage against the brutalities of capitalism, deriding “Wall Street CEOs who strut around Congress demanding favors and with no shame acting like we should thank them.” Both speeches were tough but maybe a notch too combative for the taste of some undecided swing voters.

(MORE: The Clinton Speech)

But then came Clinton, whose 49-minute speech, while featuring candy for party activists, seemed designed to reach those voters in the middle. Clinton emphasized the value of bipartisan cooperation in the service of improving the country and peoples’ lives. “When times are tough and people are frustrated and angry and hurting and uncertain, the politics of constant conflict may be good,” Clinton said. “But what is good politics does not necessarily work in the real world. What works in the real world is cooperation.” Clinton even name-checked George W. Bush — another former President, who did not appear at his party’s convention — for supporting a program to reduce AIDS in Africa. (Amazingly, he had Democratic delegates cheering W’s name.) Now that you’ve read those words, read this passage from the Aug. 21 Washington Post:

[O]ne clear factor that separates them from Democrats and Republicans is a near-uniform call for greater cross-party cooperation. Seven in 10 independents say they favor compromise between the parties rather than confrontation, according to the survey. Just as many say they are dissatisfied with the country’s political system.

Clinton played another important role for Americans still making up their minds: that of fact checker. “You be the judge. Here’s what really happened,” he said, before refuting the Romney-Ryan charges that Obamacare “raids” Medicare of $716 billion. Clinton took this approach on several issues, including the wildly exaggerated charge that Obama is gutting welfare reform, and presented himself as an honest broker supplying Americans with policy detail they rarely hear in a convention address.

The crowd loved it. The hall was even louder than it was after Michelle Obama’s direct-hit speech on Tuesday night, and that was twice as loud as the response to Romney’s nomination-acceptance speech in Tampa. Of course, what matters most is how the conventions are seen outside the halls by the millions of people watching at home. But the omens for the GOP are not good. And the true star of the Democratic Party has yet to speak.

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