Bill Clinton had one job on taking the stage last night — to unite a fractious party behind his wife Hillary. It might turn out to be Mission Impossible, but no one can say that the former president didn’t give it his best shot. Energy-wise, he’s a far cry from the youthful and charismatic politician who seduced Democrats in 1992, but he hasn’t lost his political skills — and the Clintons needed all of that, and more.
At the end of Day Two, the DNC had tried almost everything to keep angry Bernie Sanders delegates from bolting. They apologized for the e-mails sent by top DNC execs (but have not as yet cashiered them, notably); they cajoled them to unite; they threatened credentials, if tales from delegates are to be believed; and they even had Sarah Silverman tell them to shut up. By the time Bill Clinton took the stage, they’d tried everything … except giving them an argument to support Hillary. The result? Hundreds had already walked out before his speech.
Clinton tried to fill that gap in the most non-confrontational way possible, as I note in a special column I wrote for CNN:
Rather than take on the task of unifying through direct debate, Clinton delivered a masterful soft-sell by walking through a personal history of his wife that tried to answer the divides in the party.
The former president offered a self-deprecating view of his courtship of Hillary Rodham, loving memories of their time as parents, painting a touching picture of a marriage that has endured some very public humiliations.
But woven within these memories were specific reasons for dissenters to reconsider. For those who place racial disunity at the top of their priorities, Bill offered the Hillary who worked on fighting segregation. System rigged? Here’s the Hillary who registered Mexican-American voters in Texas. How about education? Bill talked about the Hillary who launched preschool education reform in Arkansas. For two-thirds of the speech, Clinton didn’t challenge the divisions in the room, but instead spun tales that put Hillary squarely within each of the groups in the Democratic coalition at loggerheads this cycle.
Worth noting, too, is that Clinton didn’t take the easy path of just painting Donald Trump as the devil incarnate. Speakers did that repeatedly over the first two days of the convention to appeal to the Sanders clique, to little avail. Rather than do that, Clinton painted his wife as the “change maker” around which all of the factions of the party could unite.
Will it work? Perhaps, and it did have the novelty of not yet being tried, but … does Clinton still have that much draw in the Democratic Party any longer? It’s not even close to the same party it was when the Democratic Leadership Council backed him to pull the party back from the New Left in order to win national elections. The people who supply the energy to the Left clearly don’t take orders from the Clinton machine any longer, and they are the people least likely to be charmed by a walk down Memory Lane from an old centrist — especially one with the corruption baggage Bill and Hillary carry.
As cagey and clever as Bill’s strategy and execution were last night, his nostalgia really speaks only to those who still embrace the Democratic Party of old. Just as the towering and unifying figure for Republicans is Hillary Clinton, the counterpart for Democrats will be Donald Trump. Bernie Sanders probably made the more effective pitch between the two, for that reason.