By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor
As many of our online readers know—and as almost all of my friends know—I make no secret of my political allegiance. I’ve been a self-identified Republican since roughly age six, when I sat on the braided rug in my parent’s house with paper spread out on the floor, watching the black and white television and drawing pictures with crayon and pencil of the 1964 Republican National Convention.
Family legend holds that I stopped drawing long enough to stare, transfixed and motionless, at Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech. If I could have legally registered that night, I would have had my dad drive me to the office of Voter Registration in downtown Jacksonville, Florida. Instead, still weeks away from beginning 1st grade, I had to settle for a permanent love of great political speechmaking.
Still, despite my long held allegiance, through elementary school to high school, through college and onward into adulthood, some recent readers of Thursday Review still complain that I am too “soft” on liberalism, too conciliatory, too understanding of both points of view—even where I may disagree sharply. In short, I am not “fair and balanced” enough for my red meat conservative friends. Nor, it seems, am I neutral enough to satisfy my liberal friends, many of whom dismiss my political essays and reviews as merely polite rehashes of what they already prefer to avoid watching on Glenn Beck or on Fox News.
Nevertheless, my Republican credentials are solid—a long resume that runs the gamut from my delivery of the pro-Nixon talk on the day we had a mock election in my 4th grade class in 1968, to the endless time spent working the phone bank for President Ford’s re-election in 1976, to the incalculable volunteer hours I gave up as a college student street volunteer for Ronald Reagan in 1980.
What’s the point, you ask?
The point is that of the untold thousands of hours watching and recording debates, election returns and political conventions on television (yes, I am the geeky guy who still has VHS and Betamax tapes labeled with things like “Super Tuesday Returns, CNN, 1988” and “Democratic Debate, ABC News, 1984”), last night’s speech by former President Bill Clinton was one of the very best—easily on my Top 10 list of convention addresses.
To sum up using the deplorable cliché of baseball: Bill Clinton hit the ball straight out of the park—a Roy Hobbs homer rising in cinematic slow motion up across the nose-bleed seats, over the steel roof, and out into the shimmering night sky. Goodbye, Mr. Spaulding.
Clinton, let’s face it, is good at this sort of thing. His loose, personable delivery and easy-around-the-edges speaking style is his best asset, trumping even his wonky command of fun facts, percentages and sometimes questionable statistics. He is conciliatory and magnanimous, qualities that seem almost quaint in direct comparison to most of the fighting words uttered in Tampa last week, or Charlotte this week. And Clinton is also a master of approachability. To watch him is to like him, even if you hate him.
Unlike the majority of Tuesday’s Democratic headliners, Clinton understands that one need not shout, bellow or howl under a brow beaded with a half pint of sweat to make one’s salient point, even when preaching to the already-converted in the hall. Clinton, like Reagan, is a master of charm and understatement: once invited into his space—whether in a diner, a conference room or an arena—one has his confidence and whispered advice.
Of course, like anyone speaking in Tampa or Charlotte, Clinton knows that the delegates and alternates aren’t the real audience. Clinton was talking to the unconverted, the skeptics, the independents, and those among the vast space called “undecided.” Clinton’s task Wednesday night was to channel energy. This has always been his sharpest skill, and it was that very form of outreach that assured him election victory over George H.W. Bush in 1992, and brought him easy re-election success in 1996.
Despite having been in politics since his teenage years, this may have been Clinton’s best speech—ever—so good in fact that he singlehandedly erased the stench of the previous dozen Wednesday headliners, with their overly-rehearsed statements, silly economic platitudes, wild distortions and especially those misty-eyed appeals to liberal nostalgia. There were more Kennedys in the hall in Charlotte than there were players on the sidelines at the Cowboys-Giants game. Nostalgia doesn’t necessarily equal high ratings.
But wasn’t that the point of having William Jefferson Clinton deliver President Obama’s nomination in the first place? Nostalgia, though a proven and powerful tool for Democrats since the 1960s, still falls short when times get tough. Just ask LBJ. Or Jimmy Carter, who was an endlessly popular punching bag for the Republicans in Tampa last week. A bad economy—especially one in which the dominant feature is unemployment—trumps all other factors, including war and social issues and the grainy, hand-held cinema verite of progressive Democratic nostalgia.
It remains an inconvenient truth that it was Edward Kennedy himself, liberal Lion of the Senate, who challenged President Carter in 1980. Carter’s case in the court of public opinion sounds eerily familiar today: in January 1977 he inherited a lousy, stagnant economy, and four years just isn’t enough time to fix all the things that went wrong Be patient, give me more time.
But Americans aren’t the most patient bunch of folks when faced with unemployment hovering above nine percent and jobs still flowing away from our shores to other parts of the world. So the long list of GOP heavyweights in Tampa last week used Obama as a piñata, and used the name of Jimmy Carter to rally the troops to what Republicans see as potential game-changing victory, the sort of landslide that shifts templates and re-colors the electoral map red.
In 1980 Reagan said enough is enough. He asked voters to decide for themselves, posing a simple question: are you better off today than you were four years ago? It was a moment which proved decisive for Reagan, handing him a landslide victory and even toppling the U.S. Senate into GOP control for the first time since the 1950s.
This was the message hammered home repeatedly last week in Tampa, an especially critical talking point for Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney in both their speeches: Republicans have the opportunity to reclaim the high ground.
Then along comes Bill Clinton to say “not so fast!” Clinton’s task was simple: tell the success story of Barack Obama, not the story of failure. Clinton did this with skill and with a deft recalibration of the priorities. Again, Clinton was not talking to the partisans in Charlotte, nor to the reporters sitting in their skyboxes. The former President was talking to the Reagan Democrats, to independent voters, and to the largely unaligned—those millions of voters who have little attachment to party labels, but nevertheless have the ability to swing an election.
Clinton understood this back in the early 1990s as his fledgling, long-shot candidacy came into focus. Democrats were yearning for someone—anyone—who could guide them back to power and to relevance as they approached 12 years of Reagan-Bush-Quayle. Were the second and third generation progressives and reformers equipped to lead them from the wilderness? Ted Kennedy? Walter Mondale? Gary Hart? Mario Cuomo?
In the end Bill Clinton, who had learned his lessons early in life in the chainsaw political context of Arkansas, demonstrated that only through a pragmatic outreach toward the center would the Democratic Party find its music—discordant and tinny though it sounded when compared to Camelot and its symphony of nostalgia.
And this brings us full circle to Mitt Romney, who, as a young, energetic, wealthy businessman in Massachusetts, set in motion the first real challenge to Ted Kennedy’s inevitability in the Senate. Romney’s vigorous challenge initially brought poll numbers that year to a virtual tie. Though in the end, Kennedy would win by a comfortable margin, Romney had briefly rattled the national assumptions about the Bay State and had jolted the Kennedy mystique from its slumber. Pragmatism and results are more important than nostalgia, and economic pain trumps everything else.
The question remains: are you better off today than you were four years ago? President Clinton says yes, certainly you are. Mitt Romney says no.
Clinton hit a home run last night with one of the best speeches ever delivered to a national audience, perhaps framing the Obama narrative better than Obama could himself. But for those Americans watching, was it enough to change the answer to Reagan’s famous question?