In the Arena

The Clinton Speech

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Bill Clinton talks about policy — about the substance of governing — better than any other politician I’ve ever heard. He keeps it simple and he keeps it accurate. He can make Medicare as dramatic as warfare. He did a major demolition job on the Republican Party’s economic policy on Wednesday night. He held it to the light of the facts. And it crumbled, as those of us who follow these things knew it would. After all, we’ve had 30 years of data: supply-side economics doesn’t work, tax cuts for the wealthy are more likely to encourage the purchase of dressage horses than the creation of new jobs.

He did Barack Obama a service on Wednesday, but he also did the country a service by making crystal clear the baloney slicing at the heart of the Republican argument. Where to begin?

(MORE: Bill Clinton Makes His Case for Obama)

Well, I was watching Fox News for a bit afterward, and those guys just didn’t know what to say. Brit Hume went back to Monica Lewinsky. Steve Hayes said the fact-checkers would be working all night on the speech. He was being a bit disingenuous: Steve’s a good reporter, and he knows that every last statistic in the speech was accurate. We all know the numbers. We all know the facts. Paul Ryan did indeed propose the same Medicare savings that Obama included in the Affordable Care Act. Obama did indeed grant waivers to Republican governors to find better ways to increase employment among those on welfare — and promised to rescind the waivers if they didn’t produce results. We also know — and Clinton didn’t bother to go here — that Mitt Romney enacted the same sort of individual-mandate health care system that Obama did, and that it’s working very well, thank you, in Massachusetts.

If there is a controversy about the speech, it will involve this statement:

No President — not me or any of my predecessors — could have repaired all the damage in just four years. But conditions are improving, and if you’ll renew the President’s contract, you will feel it.

I believe that with all my heart.

That is a matter of opinion rather than fact. But here’s a hunch: the American people will trust Clinton on this one, just as they stuck with him during the Lewinsky scandal (and the scandalous Republican impeachment attempt that followed). They’ll trust him because he always had their back, because he produced prosperity — while raising taxes — and balanced budgets. He governed as well as he talked.

(PHOTOS: Democratic National Convention 2012)

Although I must say, I can’t think of any politician who talks as good as Clinton. Certainly, no politician has ever been able to unpack and explain dry, complicated policy nuances in as juicy and entertaining a manner. The folks at Fox were speculating that the speech was overly wonky, and maybe a lot of people got bored and turned off their televisions. Wishful thinking, no doubt. That’s what they always said about his epic State of the Union filibusters — and they were always wrong. People like listening to this guy. He’s informal and informative, in a way that Obama, sadly, has never been able to be — otherwise the folks would have known all that good stuff about the health care plan and the stimulus plan. But then, Obama’s in good company: as I said, Clinton’s the most compelling policy wonk I’ve ever heard. And there is no second place.

Oh, and by the way, here’s the Romney campaign’s official reaction to the Clinton speech:

President Clinton drew a stark contrast between himself and President Obama tonight. Bill Clinton worked with Republicans, balanced the budget, and after four years he could say you were better off. Barack Obama hasn’t worked across the aisle — he’s barely worked with other Democrats — and has the worst economic record of any president in modern history. President Clinton’s speech brought the disappointment and failure of President Obama’s time in office clearly into focus. —Ryan Williams, Romney spokesman

Does that reflect the speech you heard? Does it acknowledge Clinton’s citation of Senator Mitch McConnell’s odious statement at the beginning of the current presidency that his No. 1 priority was the defeat of Obama? The reality once again is that Republicans stonewalled Clinton’s 1993 economic plan just as they’ve stonewalled Obama. That’s partly why Clinton was so passionate in Obama’s defense. The Republicans were every bit as intransigent toward his proposals as they’ve been toward Obama’s. The most disappointing thing about the Romney campaign is how often it insults the intelligence of the American people.

MORE: Smart Things Bill Clinton Did in His Speech