A post-Bubba post-mortem
posted at 11:53 am on September 6, 2012 by Karl
Given my prebuttal of Bill Clinton’s DNC speech, it’s only fair to comment on the actual speech he delivered. It was a foregone conlucion that the establishment media would treat it like a religious experience. However, the speech also received good reviews from a number of conservatives, including Guy Benson, David Freddoso and Fred Barnes, who tended to think Bubba made about as good a case for reelecting Pres. Obama as could reasonably be made. I respectfully disagree.
This is not to say that Clinton wrote a bad speech. As a speech, it’s pretty good. However, I question whether it was an effective speech. My analysis here is not fact-checking. Nor am I overly focused on the delivery of the speech; no doubt, Slick Willie is a smooth talker. Rather, I am concerned only with the issue of whether Clinton’s speech helped advance Obama’s reelection. As I noted in the prebuttal, Obama was elected with a narrower version of the Bill Clinton coalition. Now that Obama is in political trouble, Clinton is brought onstage to give Obama a hug, figuratively and literally. The literal hug onstage was what it was. The figurative hug, i.e., the attempt to make Obama appealing to Clinton Dems and Indies, was far less effective.
Clinton is known for his storytelling, and this speech was no exception. Structurally, Clinton staked out posts in the glorious past track record on job creation, tackled our difficult present malaise, and closed with a call for people to ask themselves “what kind of country we want to live in,” as opposed to whether they are better off than they were for — or three — years ago. It’s a nifty narrative arc. But it clashes with Obama’s campaign narrative.
Team Obama’s slogan is “Forward.” Team O very much wants to run on Clinton’s unofficial theme song “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” not “Yesterday.” They do not want people thinking about how great past presidents were, because Obama suffers by comparison. Nor do they want people thinking about Obama’s economic record. Political junkies like the “no one could have turned this recession around in four years” argument, and it is probably the best case for Obama’s failure. But Clinton was not brought onstage to appeal to political junkies. He was brought onstage to sell people who generally avoid political argument on Obama, not to remind them of Obama’s failures.
Indeed, as Erick Erickson notes, Clinton overreached to argue that Americans are better off than they were four years ago. Clinton’s old crew at Democracy Corps told us in February that claiming the economy is back on the right track polls miserably – and “produces disastrous results.” In June, Demcracy Corps reported that focus groups of non-college-educated independent and weak partisan voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania were simply not convinced that the economy is on the move and that it is a mistake to try and tell them otherwise. If there was new data suggesting this was no longer true, Clinton would not be the only one spouting this line. Bill Clinton is known for feeling people’s pain, but he risked making himself — and Obama — look out of touch to an electorate where weak Obama ’08 voters Indies think the economy is getting worse.
Other parts of Clinton’s speech were equally problematic. Bill spent a chunk of his time making the argument that “[o]ne of the main reasons we ought to re-elect President Obama is that he is still committed to constructive cooperation,” while the GOP is intransigently partisan. That’s clearly a pitch at Indies. But will the people to whom Bill is intended to appeal believe that, simply because he says it? According to Third Way — a Clintonite group — true Indies in swing states consider themselves much closer to Romney than to Obama. Indeed, Indies generally see themselves closer to Rick Santorum than Obama. Clinton may have been setting up Obama’s speech tonight — Obama has been talking about the GOP being forced tocooperate with him if reelected — but it’s far from clear that disaffected swing voters see Obama as “the adult in the room” as Beltway types do.
There was also a fair amount of policy talk in Clinton’s speech. Here again, I question whether this appeals as much to the undecided voter as it does to political junkies, although it at least creates the illusion that information is being provided. Even on that basis, it is worth noting that the more memorable passages are Clinton’s defenses of the auto bailout and Medicare/Obamacare. Note in particular that they are defenses. They are defenses of unpopular policies. When Bill Clinton sought reelection, he ran against the imaginary Dole-Gingrich ticket, mercilessly attacking them for wanting Medicare to “wither on the vine.” Last night, Bill Clinton had to spend time trying to reassure people Obama was not robbing the Medicare trust fund to pay for his own unpopular program. How times have changed.
Again, this is not to say that Clinton’s speech did not have its moments. It undoubedly helped fire up the Democratic base in a cycle where Obama is essentially running a base strategy. But Bill Clinton was brought onstage to do more than that, and it’s far from clear this speech did more than that.
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