For most of the campaign, the biggest booster of former President Bill Clinton was Mitt Romney. After a year of pandering to the right wing of the Republican Party, Romney needed something that would signal moderation and tap into the broad frustration with President Obama’s administration. Popular at home and abroad, Clinton reminded Americans of better times. And despite the fact that Obama drew heavily from the Clinton administration, Romney used the poor economic conditions to argue that Obama had strayed from the Clinton path. Obama, he argued, “tucked away the Clinton doctrine in his large drawer of discarded ideas, along with transparency and bipartisanship.”
The implication, of course, is that Romney will return the “Clinton doctrine” to its rightful place.
Indeed, that rhetoric has been on full display for the last month, with Romney hammering Obama for “gutting” welfare. Yes, this never happened, but the point isn’t to tell the truth—if honesty were important to Romney, he wouldn’t have a message. Instead, it’s to paint Obama as a dissenter from the Democratic consensus of the 1990s, and convince Americans that he’s far to the left of the mainstream.
The obvious problem with this strategy is that Clinton is still alive. And more important, he’s still engaged in politics. He remains a prodigious campaigner, an excellent fundraiser, and a dedicated partisan—he’ll leave kind words for Republicans, but when push comes to shove, he’s a Democrat.
Right now, the Romney campaign is shoving, and Bill Clinton has decided to respond.
Last week, it was a press release condemning Romney for his false welfare attacks, calling them “not true” and “misleading.” Today, it’s an ad that presents Obama as the way forward for a better economy:
This hits every note Obama has been stressing throughout the campaign. It alludes to the Bush years without directly blaming the current situation on Bush, it contrasts the “top down” policies of Romney with the “balanced approach” of the Obama administration. It keeps the focus off of the present, and—without saying the economy is good—suggests that we’re improving. And, of course, the mere presence of Clinton evokes memories of his term, and ties Obama to the prosperity of the 1990s.
It’s a good spot, and as Greg Sargent points out, a sign that Team Obama is expanding its message. The campaign isn’t naive—it knows that voters are dissatisfied with current conditions. But it’s making a gambit: that this is discontent with the pace of change, and not a rejection of the administration’s approach. If that’s true, then acknowledging that complaint—but urging Americans to press on—is the right approach. This ad does that and—as a bonus—places Romney on the defensive: “Why are you citing Clinton if he doesn’t like your policies?”