Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Tale of Two Speeches

So, the regular season is now officially over and the playoffs have begun.  The Democratic National Convention came to an official end Thursday night – exactly one week after the Republicans concluded theirs – with Barack Obama giving a rousing plea to a delirious crowd and to the still undecided voters watching at home for a second four-year term as president.  It came on the heels of former President Bill Clinton’s speech the night before: one of the best of his entire political career. 

The dichotomy between both speeches and both men could not have been more apparent or revealing. Clinton did what he has always done best: talk to the crowd; Obama did what he has always done best: talk at the crowd.  There is a big difference.  Both men were at their best and yet it was Clinton that did his job far more effectively than his successor.  You see, while Obama riled up the base, Clinton went middle of the road, i.e. independents and moderates.

Throughout most of the former president’s speech, Clinton did a masterful job pulling back the veil of the Republican Party and connecting the dots for the undecided voters at home.  He had the best line of the whole week when he accurately described the GOP’s position thusly:  We (Republicans) made a mess. He (Obama) didn't clean it up fast enough, so put us back in.”  And he made the best case for why this election shouldn’t be a referendum; it should be a choice between two very distinct visions for America.

Bill Clinton accomplished three crucial things in his speech Wednesday night.  He explained, in simple, easy to understand terms just what happened four years ago; he then explained who was responsible for it; and last, but not least, he made the case for why the President deserved to be reelected.  In fact he made a stronger case for Obama’s reelection than Obama did himself.   And he did all that with both a swagger and a sympathetic tone that let everybody watching know that, even after all these years, he could still feel their pain.  Of all his many gifts, none have served him better than empathy.

In artist’s terms, Clinton painted the political equivalent of a masterpiece.  In one of the finest moments of his speech he laid out Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney over their false charge that Obama is somehow raiding the Medicare fund of $716 billion.  The closing line was vintage Clinton: “It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.”  So brilliant was it that the Obama campaign should use it in its entirety in its next ad. 

And then he did the impossible: he somehow turned Medicaid into a middle class voting issue by explaining that the Republican plan to block-grant the program would have adverse effects on middle-class seniors who depend on Medicaid for nursing home care, as well as “a lot of middle-class families whose kids have Down’s syndrome or autism or other severe conditions.”  Talk about the poor all you want, but the moment Bill Clinton linked Medicaid with the word middle class, like that E.F. Hutton ad, everyone was paying attention.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. It wasn’t so much what he said, but how he said it.  In my lifetime he’s been the only Democrat that’s been able to talk specifics without putting the audience to sleep.  Al Gore looked like a mannequin by comparison; John Kerry, a Harvard professor.  Brilliant men both, but neither could straddle that line between informative and engaging the way Clinton could and still does.  He looked completely at ease with himself, more self-assured than at any time since he left office twelve years ago.  He was, to put it mildly, in his glory.

But while Bill Clinton did his job and cleared the underbrush, as it were, Barack Obama chose to paint in broader strokes.  His speech was heartfelt, but was not nearly as effective.  I kept thinking all throughout it, he isn’t speaking to independents now, he’s speaking to his base.  One of the things I mentioned in an earlier piece was that Obama, somehow, had to reignite the passion within a base that has grown disillusioned over the last four years by a man they had high hopes for in 2008.  On that front, the President seemed to take care of business Thursday night.  If there was or is a progressive out there who at this point has any lingering doubts about what’s at stake in this election, then all the oratory skill of an FDR wouldn’t have sufficed.

But whether it was the pending and disappointing August jobs’ report, which he undoubtedly received beforehand, or perhaps the resignation that he wasn’t going to be able to lay out a detailed plan for how to fix a political process in Washington that wants no part of him in it anyway, Obama opted instead to go for the “we’re all in this together” approach.  Translation: there are no easy solutions, no silver bullets, no quick fixes.  It’s going to take time and patience and he asked the nation for the chance to finish the job he started four years ago.

You didn't elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades. It will require common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one.

And by the way -- those of us who carry on his party's legacy should remember that not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington. But know this, America: Our problems can be solved. Our challenges can be met. The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place. And I'm asking you to choose that future.

It was as close to an “I feel your pain” moment as the man was capable of.  It was also incredibly risky.  Pundits universally agree on few points, but one of them is that candidates who level with voters almost never get elected.  Whether Obama’s gamble pays off remains to be seen.  Had Clinton not done such a wonderful job the night before, this might very well have been his exit interview.  It wasn’t so much that the speech was bad – far from it.  It was just that there was nothing new in it, nothing revelatory, nothing you hadn’t heard a dozen times before.  The economy was bad, it’s improving, we’ve still got work to do, give us more time.

With regards to the first three points, there can be no dispute.  The fourth, however, has yet to be decided. 

T minus 58 days and counting.   


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