Bill Clinton at the DNC: The Orator is Back

5 years ago

The anticipation for Bill Clinton’s speech on Wednesday night was filled with suspense: “What kind of speaker will Bill Clinton be?” asked the Washington Post.

Would the former Democratic president, whose popularity is higher than President Obama's, hog the limelight? Would the loquacious, story-telling politician go on way too long, as he did when he gave the nomination speech for former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis in 1988?

And would the husband of Hillary Clinton be able to convincingly convey his support for the candidate who beat his wife in the bitter Democratic presidential race in 2008? Could he make the case to the still-undecided voters for four more years?

I couldn’t wait to see what happened, particularly when Anderson Cooper tweeted as I was sitting in the packed arena that Obama was going to be there to hear Clinton officially nominate him.

This was going to be good.

(Image: © Harry E. Walker/MCT/

But from the moment Clinton strolled on stage to thunderous cheers and applause to his own upbeat campaign anthem, “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow,” he did exactly what he’d been asked to do.

“I want to nominate a man whose own life has known its fair share of adversity and uncertainty,” he began. “A man who ran for president to change the course of an already weak economy and then just six weeks before the election, saw it suffer the biggest collapse since the Great Depression. A man who stopped the slide into depression and put us on the long road to recovery, knowing all the while that no matter how many jobs were created and saved, there were still millions more waiting, trying to feed their children and keep their hopes alive.”

Clinton built a powerful and persuasive case to re-elect Barack Obama. In a speech that brought the delegates to their feet more times than I could count, he used his gift with language, his gift for connection, and his deep command of policy to blister the Republicans and praise the president.

Oh, and he also used a little arithmetic. People often ask him, he said, how was he able to achieve four surplus budgets while in office. “I always give a one-word answer,” said Clinton, pausing to deliver the punch line: “arithmetic.”

It was the signature line of the night.

And with arithmetic -- and his vintage Southern charm -- Clinton took down Romney and Ryan’s candidacy and their plan for reviving the economy. “If they stay with a four-trillion-dollar tax cut in a debt reduction plan, the arithmetic tells us that one in three things will happen,” he said.

“I think the president’s plan is better than the Romney plan, because the Romney plan fails the first test of fiscal responsibility: The numbers don’t add up.”

Then he proceeded to methodically counter key Romney-Ryan proposals. To cut the deficit, they’d slash spending for programs that benefit the middle-class and the poor, decimate funding for science, education college loans and technology, give more tax cuts to the rich, he said -- yet they’d also somehow dramatically increase defense spending. ‘They’ll do what they’ve been doing for thirty plus years now: cut taxes more than they cut spending, explode the debt, and weaken the economy.”

He then reminded voters: “Republican policies quadrupled the debt before I took office and doubled it after I left.”

The stagecraft was masterful. Clinton spoke standing in a circle of tiny white stars. His long shadow spilled out behind him on a blue background, casting a glow. In a dark blue suit and white shirt, the silver-haired former president looked like a minister delivering a sermon. But he wasn’t just preaching to the choir; he also spoke directly to the voters he knew would be watching and listening.

Clinton also used his own successful presidency to underscore Obama’s achievements as president -- in a way that the president has not been able to do for himself.

Obama accomplished what he and several other presidents had failed to do for decades, Clinton noted: He got health care passed; saved the auto industry; created millions of jobs with the Recovery Act; and cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans. Obama's record on national security, Clinton said, is a tribute to the president's “strength, and judgment, and to his preference for inclusion and partnership over partisanship.”

In plain language, Clinton also spelled out their starkly different philosophies of governing. “The Republican narrative is that all of us who amount to anything are completely self-made ... One of our greatest Democratic Chairmen Bob Strauss used to say that every politician wants you to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself, but it ain’t so.”

As for Democrats? “We think ‘we’re all in this together’ is a better philosophy than ‘you’re on your own,” he said, drawing the audience to roar in approval and leap to their feet.

“Well, who’s right?” Clinton asked. Again, he rattled off arithmetic to hammer home the answer. “Well, since 1961, the Republicans have held the White House 28 years, the Democrats 24. In those 52 years, our economy produced 66 million private sector jobs.”

What’s the jobs score? he asked. “Republicans 24 million. Democrats 42 million!”

Clinton also noted the rancor and refusal to cooperate that he sees the GOP display toward the president. “Though I often disagree with Republicans, I never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate President Obama and the Democrats.”

“One of the main reasons America should re-elect President Obama is that he is still committed to cooperation,” Clinton said. He then recited a list of Republicans and former adversaries Obama had appointed to his administration. “Heck,” he said, throwing up his hands, “he even appointed Hillary!”

Going back to policy, Clinton also criticized the Romney campaign for distorting Obama’s plans for popular programs including Medicare and Medicaid. About that ad the Republicans were repeatedly playing, claiming Obama had gutted work requirements for welfare? Well, the president who actually signed that welfare reform law was not very happy about it. “This is personal to me. It is just not true.”

In the end, the former president moved once more from policy to values, telling the electrified crowd, as well as those watching across the country, that the election was a stark choice between two moral paths.

“My fellow Americans, you have to decide what kind of country you want to live in,” he said toward the end of the night. “If you want a ‘you’re on your own,’ winner-take-all society, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities, a ‘we’re all in it together’ society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden. If you want a future of shared prosperity, where the middle-class is growing and poverty is declining, where the American dream is alive and well, and where the United States remains the leading force for peace and prosperity in a highly competitive world, you should vote for Barack Obama.”

At that moment, the man he had just championed for re-election suddenly appeared from backstage and the two Democratic presidents hugged and waved at the ecstatic audience.

What did you think of Clinton's speech? Did it change your mind about President Obama or the Romney-Ryan ticket?

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