Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Charlotte, Day 2: Elvis has launched the building

BILL. We love you so, we always will. That had to be the takeaway message on Wednesday night as the Democratic faithful gathered for the actual nomination of President Obama for re-election — a formality keynoted by the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton.

By the time Clinton was through with his rousing address, another school of thought was starting to emerge: In the future, we may look back on this night of the 2012 Democratic National Convention as the moment when the idea of the re-election of Barack Obama first took its place in the mass national heart and mind. This may be when the dam broke.

In 46 minutes, Clinton, the most adept, rhetorically gifted American politician since Ronald Reagan, put on a clinic in Charlotte, a class in populist politics that the Republicans need to pay close attention to.

One of their number, McCain 2008 campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, was paying attention. After watching the former president dismantle months of GOP talking points in minutes, after watching the folksy, accessible delivery of the Elvis of retail politics, Schmidt tweeted to a colleague: “I wish to God as a Republican that we had someone who could do that.”

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For years now, the Republican Party has identified Bill Clinton as their standard, their benchmark for the kind of Democratic president they could work with. The reason for this belief — equal parts delusion and amnesia — is hard to understand, given the combative relationship between Clinton and the GOP when he was in office.

But whatever the reason, Clinton put great distance between himself and the Republicans on Wednesday, even as he explained the separate challenges that faced his White House and the tasks that confront Team Obama.

“President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did,” he said. “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.”

Clinton took dead aim at one of the Romney campaign’s enduring lies: that on July 12, President Obama tinkered with the work-for-welfare program that was a hallmark of the Clinton administration, and dropped the work requirements needed to gain welfare benefits.

“The claim that President Obama weakened welfare-for-work requirements in just, not, true,” Clinton said. “But they keep on running ads claiming it. You wanna know why? Their campaign pollster said, ‘we are not gonna let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.’ … I can say that is true.”

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CLINTON’s gift for distilling expansive, complicated concepts and arguments was in full evidence on Wednesday, though his critique of the RomneyRyan economic plan didn’t need much unraveling, given how little of the plan the Republican nominees have bothered to explain.

Clinton made it easy. “People ask all the time how we got four surplus budgets in a row — what new ideas did we bring to Washington? I always have a one-word answer: arithmetic. Arithmetic!

“The Romney plan fails the first test of fiscal responsibility,” he said. “The numbers just don’t add up … We simply cannot afford to give the reins of government to someone who will double down on trickle-down!”

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Clinton took aim at the Republican Party’s reflex for jettisoning those suspected of anything even remotely considered apostasy. “Just in the last couple of elections, they defeated two distinguished Republican senators because they dared to cooperate with Democrats on issues important to the future of the country, even national security,” the former president said, in an oblique reference to Indiana’s Richard Lugar, a foreign-policy expert, and Bob Bennett of Utah.

“They beat a Republican congressman with almost 100 percent voting record on every conservative score because he said he realized he did not have to hate the president to disagree with him,” Clinton said, recalling the ouster of Bob Inglis of South Carolina, who dared to suggest decorum in dealing with the Democratic White House.

But Clinton pivoted back to the economy, and a full-throated support of the Obama economic recovery plan. “If you will renew the president’s contract, you will feel it,” he said. Then, in an aside: ““Folks, whether the American people believe what I just said or not may be the whole election. I just want you to know that I believe it. With all my heart, I believe it.”

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A COMPARISON of Clinton’s prepared remarks with what he actually said revealed another gift of the 42nd president: an uncanny ability to improvise on the fly. The Boston Globe reported that Clinton added 2,200 words to a planned 3,222-word speech on the spot. He just made it up while he was at the podium.

The Elvis of American politics? Maybe he’s more like the John Coltrane of American politics.

Whoever you compare him to almost doesn’t matter. By the end of his wildly received speech, the word was already out among the hierophants of the punditburo: Even with 61 days left, this thing may be closer to the end than we thought.

Alex Castellanos, a longtime GOP mouthpiece, former Romney adviser and now a CNN political analyst, seems to agree.

"I would recommend to my friend Paul Begala here, tonight when everybody leaves, lock the doors,” he said on the air after Clinton finished. “You don't have to come back tomorrow. This convention is done. This will be the moment that probably re-elected Barack Obama.”

Image credits: Clinton I: From DNC pool video. Clinton II: James Keivom/New York Daily News.

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