Tonight, Bill Clinton, whom I used to work for as chief White House speechwriter, will give a major address to the Democratic convention. Startlingly, that same sentence could have been written in 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008. Think of Springsteen at the Meadowlands. Even if you don't really like the music, you must admire the longevity.
This Clinton convention speech is more important than most—certainly, it’s more riveting. It’s topsy-turvy for a former president to place in nomination a current chief executive. Add to that the operatic nature of 2008 nomination fight, the current highly public rapprochement, the blind quotes and the fevered and loopy speculation about the Clintons’ true motives. So expectations are high, putting it mildly, for my old boss in his big speech. And I’ll admit: I expect him to do very well.
Bill Clinton loves this format. He relishes the politics, the policy, the tactics and strategy. He is one of the very rare people who regularly ad libs while using a teleprompter. (Try it: it’s almost impossible.) As at a State of the Union address, Clinton loves to sift through possible language, policies, facts, arguments. He is without peer when it comes to making a political argument with a smile.
To be sure, the process is not, let’s say, orderly. In 1996, I was his chief speechwriter. We sent him draft after draft for two weeks, to little response. He rode a train through the Midwest to the convention, and we hoped that would at least force him to focus. Instead, he procrastinated. Finally, twenty-four hours before the speech, he locked in, and began to write—producing nearly an entirely new speech. I was still frantically typing as the motorcade pulled off to the convention hall. Television showed the scene, with flags flapping, motorcycles roaring ….and the unmistakable blue glow of a laptop in the back of the limousine. (“Let this be a lesson for all the young people watching tonight,” a well-known newscaster intoned. “Don’t save your work until the last minute.”) So I laughed when I read that Obama aides were expecting an early draft of the speech. To borrow a phrase, “David Plouffe, I feel your pain.”
Of course, President Clinton might misfire. The last time he delivered a nominating speech, for Michael Dukakis in 1988, the meandering talk nearly derailed his presidential hopes. But his speeches have grown looser, funnier, often more effective since he left office. He is the best in American politics at explaining policy—conveying statistics and programs in a way understandable to any listener. President Obama isn’t particularly good at this, and in Tampa, Mitt Romney didn’t even try.
And apart from the sheer performance spectacle of it, for Democrats this address has a critical strategic purpose. Republicans say the election is a referendum. Their new slogan states it clearly: Obama isn’t working. (That lifts unapologetically from Margaret Thatcher’s slogan, “Labour Isn’t Working.” I guess Joe Biden can go back to quoting Neil Kinnock again.) Mitt Romney’s choice to offer no policy agenda in his acceptance speech was, in part, a desire to minimize the target.Democrats, of course, want the election to be a choice. In ways large and small, they have sought to force the electorate to compare the policies and personalities of the two candidates—and their parties. The GOP has recently been clever enough to obscure this choice. At the RNC in Tampa, these policies went nearly unmentioned. A casual viewer would have no idea that the candidates want to end Medicare as an entitlement, for example. Mitt Romney may have yoked himself to the Paul Ryan budget, but voters aren’t quite aware of how sharply those policies depart from the governing consensus.
So the Democrats have no choice but to attack the GOP. The risks are minimal. Independent voters tell pollsters they don’t like negativity, shun partisanship, but in fact, they respond to it. And there is nothing at all wrong with a political party making clear where it believes the wrongheaded policies of the opposition would lead the country.
That’s not to say that President Obama should be the one to draw the sharpest contrasts with Romney. Often, that job goes to the Vice Presidential nominee. We remember Sarah Palin’s speech from four years ago, not John McCain’s. Hubert Humphrey’s 1964 address outshone Lyndon Johnson’s. (Most Republicans supported civil rights, Hubert Humphrey cried in 1964, “But not Senator Goldwater!” The Arizonan’s reputation was never the same.
But Bill Clinton will be uniquely valuable in filling this role. He draws on a deep reservoir of personal credibility. The public associates him with prosperity. More recently, the Republicans, shortsightedly, have spent weeks polishing Clinton’s reputation. Obama’s no New Democrat, they sighed, not like good old Bill Clinton. If nothing else, the President who signed welfare reform, over protests from his own party, can forcefully reply to GOP attacks on the Obama administration’s welfare policy.
So Clinton—more easily than the incumbent president—can frame the choice. With a smile and a drawl, he can eviscerate the policies of the Republicans. We know he won’t attack Bain. But he can do more than anyone else to fill in the sketchy policy details left out of by Republican orators last week. He will praise Obama, of course, stressing the mess that the President inherited. That’s standard fare for a nomination speech. But the real thing to listen to isn’t what Bill Clinton says about Obama, it’s what he says about Romney. How will he frame the Republican nominee, not as a person, not as a businessman, but as a policy leader?
That would set the stage for President Obama to do something he has not done yet: set out a clear agenda for what he would seek to do in a second term. And not a moment too late.
Michael Waldman is former Director of Speechwriting for President Bill Clinton.