Big Dog, Unleashed

CHARLOTTE—For the last month, Team Romney has been playing a dangerous game with the Democratic Party. With its false attacks on the administration’s welfare waivers and its constant invocation of his policies, Team Romney has tried to present their candidate as the true heir to Bill Clinton.

In something that resembles a “good Democrat/bad Democrat” routine, the Romney campaign has consistently attacked President Obama for returning to the unpopular liberalism of the 1970s and betraying Clinton’s legacy of reform. Yesterday, Romney surrogate John Sununu attacked President Obama for having the gall to mention Clinton at all. “[W]hile President Obama and his allies would love to be able to borrow credibility from the nation’s forty-second President, the contrast between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—particularly when it comes to economic and fiscal issues—couldn’t be greater.”

But there’s always been one glaring problem with this strategy: Bill Clinton is still alive.

In fact, he’s still active in public life, still a partisan Democrat, and still one of the most popular figures in American politics. Close to 70 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of Clinton, making him the nearest thing we have to a national referee—someone who can fairly judge the claims and rhetoric of both sdies.

Which is to say that when he took the stage last night to defend Barack Obama’s record as president, he brought a tremendous amount of credibility to the table.

Clinton’s strategy for speaking is to elaborate, and never talk down to the audience. And so, for more than 45 minutes, he gave a detailed defense of Obama, and explained the policies and politics of the last four years. For the audience, and viewers across the country, it was a reassuring experience. He detailed arguments, explained points and rattled off statistics. On health care, the stimulus, Medicare and deficit reduction, he offered figures, explained why Obama’s was the right approach, and drew a strong contrast with the rhetoric and policies of Mitt Romney.

And because this was Bill Clinton, each line was punctuated by stories, anecdotes and aphorisms—he went off-script, employed a heavy dose of Clinton charisma, and couldn’t help but point and wag his finger. Indeed, many of his most memorable lines weren’t in the original prepared remarks.

On the automobile bailouts:

So—now, we all know that Governor Romney opposed the plan to save GM and Chrysler. So here’s another job score. Are you listening in Michigan and Ohio and across the country? Here, here’s another job score: Obama, 250,000; Romney, zero.

On the GOP’s disdain for Obama:

They beat a Republican congressman with almost a hundred percent voting record on every conservative score, because he said he realized he did not have to hate the president to disagree with him. Boy, that was a nonstarter, and they threw him out.

On Paul Ryan’s attempt to attack Obama for Medicare cuts and then claim them as his own:

You got to get one thing—it takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.

If you’ve listened to any Democratic speech over the last year, you were already familiar with most of the facts in Clinton’s rhetoric. The only real difference came near the end, when he hammered Romney for his proposed cuts to Medicaid—which are far more damaging than his plan to restructure Medicare—and hammered the Republican Party for its embrace of voter identification laws, calling them out as laws designed to “reduce the turnout of younger, poorer, minority and disabled voters.” He also took the time to rebut Team Romney’s attacks on welfare—“I am telling you the claim that President Obama weakened welfare reform’s work requirement is just not true.”

What made this speech great was Clinton’s ability to forge a connection with viewers through this mix of charisma, intelligence and deep policy knowledge. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that this could mark a turning point for Obama’s reelection campaign. The most important line of the speech came near the midpoint, when Clinton looked directly at the audience, asked for their attention, and made a simple declaration. “Listen to me, now. No president—no president, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.”

This is the central pitch to swing voters and dissatisfied Democrats: No, we haven’t recovered from the Great Recession, but four years isn’t enough to climb out of the hole dug by Republicans. Rather than give them the ladder—four years after they led the country into this ditch—we should stick with President Obama, who has the tried-and-true approach of the 1990s. If swing voters accept this argument and agree with Clinton that the only thing Obama needs is time, then Democrats will have scored a huge victory.