Bill Clinton Brings a Passion Infusion to the DNC

The former president fused folksiness and wonkiness in boosting his successor.

Robyn Beck / Getty Images

Bill Clinton, riding to the rescue of his Democratic successor, delivered an entertaining tour de force Wednesday night, saying the Republicans had created a “total mess” that Barack Obama is still cleaning up.

“If you want a you’re-on-your-own, winner-take-all society, you should support the Republican ticket,” Clinton said. “If you want a country of shared prosperity and shared responsibility—we’re-all-in-this-together society—you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”

With one line, Clinton both acknowledged and neutralized Obama’s natural reserve, as a leader “who’s cool on the outside but who burns for America on the inside.”

And by the way, Clinton got so wound up that he went long—not that anyone in the crowd was complaining. Even some conservatives on Twitter called it a great speech.

It was an extraordinary spectacle on the second night of the convention, with a once-impeached president trying to transfer some of his late-in-life popularity to the man who defeated his wife four years ago—and actually placed his name in nomination.

Whether out of conviction or political convenience, Clinton demonstrated anew a skill that Obama barely possesses, to translate complex policy arguments into simple human terms. And his starpower also guaranteed maximum media attention on the evening after Michelle Obama drew praise for her highly personal speech.

Teeing up the Charlotte crowd were Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who briefly gained fame when Rush Limbaugh called her a slur, and Elizabeth Warren, a liberal hero who is nonetheless trailing Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race.

Clinton’s value to Obama, beyond his rhetorical gifts, rests on the positive memories stirred by his eight years of peace and prosperity. That record was badly marred by his sexual hijinks with Monica Lewinsky, which led Republicans to try to drive him out of office. But as that scandal has receded into history, the balanced budgets and welfare reform he forged with the Gingrich Republicans look pretty good compared to today’s bitter Beltway paralysis.

Former Clinton and Obama aide Rahm Emanuel, now Chicago’s mayor, drew the analogy in an interview, saying a Democratic victory would force Republicans to come to the table as they did in Clinton’s second term.

With former Clintonites roaming the streets of Charlotte—Terry McAuliffe, Joe Lockhart, Harold Ickes—the night served as both a 20th anniversary of the man’s election and his reemergence as more than a Cabinet spouse with a cool global foundation.

What Clinton brought to the stage was the politics of joy, a performer with a playful sense of humor who revels in and draws strength from the crowd.

He deftly ridiculed the shift in the GOP by recalling how he worked with Republicans both in the White House and his post-presidency. “I actually never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate our president,” Clinton said.

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And who else could wave off the tensions of 2008, when Obama aides believed Clinton was making a borderline racist appeal, by noting that the president had put several Hillary aides in the Cabinet—“Heck, he appointed Hillary!”

Did I mention he went long? Too long, closing in on an hour, crashing past the 11 p.m. deadline, refusing to stop until he had beat the viewing audience into submission. By the end Clinton was spewing statistics, as he did in those State of the Union marathons, and losing rhetorical steam. But he didn’t care. This was his moment, and he wasn’t going quietly. Clinton ensured that reviews of a boffo speech would morph into reviews of an endless speech.

It was a wonky speech at times, more theater than dramatic oration, a classic Clintonian riff. Whether it helps Obama repeat the Clinton feat of winning a second term is far from clear. But as Bubba is wont to do, he sucked up all the oxygen in the room.