Vintage Clinton: Inspiring, Maddening and a Little Sad

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By Ramesh Ponnuru and Margaret Carlson

This is another in a series of reports from Ramesh Ponnuru and Margaret Carlson from the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Ramesh: Bill Clinton made the best case possible for President Barack Obama last night, but boy did he have to do a lot of work to make it.

The deep recession Obama inherited, and the weak recovery for which he arguably bears some responsibility, mark him as a failure using the normal metric of the number of jobs now compared to when he took office. So Clinton compared the Democratic and Republican presidents of the last few decades in the aggregate, arguing that Democrats had generally done better than Republicans. That’s true only because Democrats have more often left office at the start of recessions. In other words, Clinton wants us to judge Republicans in general by a tougher standard than he wants us to apply to Obama.

To make the argument that Obama was willing to reach out to political opponents, Clinton almost exclusively referred to Obama’s work with rivals inside his party -- notably Clinton’s wife. If Obama’s record had supplied Clinton with examples of reaching across the aisle, he would have used them.

Clinton's argument about Obamacare relied on the same sort of cherry-picking. We’re supposed to believe that trillions of dollars in new spending is worth it because some 25-year-olds can stay on their parents’ health plans -- which they will have to do since the economy Obama presides over isn’t generating jobs for them. We’re also supposed to believe that Medicare can be cut by more than $700 billion without affecting anybody’s benefits.

Clinton, in a line that seemed self-deprecating but was actually self-aggrandizing, said that not even he could have turned around this economy in “just four years.” I suspect that not even he could persuade Americans that four disappointing years have actually been the prelude to success.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)

Margaret: The Big Dog started out hoarse, like Clint Eastwood, another old man with white hair ignoring the flashing light, who didn't naturally belong there. It's not so much what Clinton said as the way he said it in defense of a man he might have never forgiven or been forgiven by.

President Barack Obama may well give a better speech tonight, with a kiss to Michelle at the end to rival Al Gore's of Tipper. But we’ve been to the emotional mountaintop of the convention as Obama came from behind the curtain for The Hug that lasted two back pats longer than it needed to. No kiss could supplant it.

By concentrating on facts, Ramesh, you miss the point of Clinton. Yes, he was selective in the budget figures, BLS data, and the history of presidents past and present to make the case for reelecting the current one.  He told the story with conviction, good humor and the familiar touches -- the wagging finger, the head tilt, the frequent "now, listen to this" asides in case anyone was drifting away.

Lost in your perusal of unemployment stats is the moral authority Clinton brought to the stage, a piece of capital I never thought he could reclaim when I covered the Clinton White House for Time magazine. I remember the lights on the White House lawn 24 hours a day chronicling Clinton’s deserved political and emotional death. Over a decade, he’s inched slowly back from the depths of turpitude, from sin to denial to confession to redemption through good works. He could be the hero of a country song -- or the candidate of the Christian Right, which loves a repentant sinner. No wonder Mitt Romney embraces him.

Clinton wasn’t just another president endorsing another president. The Obamas and Clintons have so many reasons to hate, and love, each other. They were bitter enemies in the 2008 Democratic primary. They became wary allies during the general-election campaign. And then, as much as its exists in politics, they became friends. Yes, Hillary Clinton’s life would have been fine had the former first lady and senator not become secretary of State. But without Obama reaching out against the human instinct of the victor to shun the loser, she wouldn’t be one of the most beloved figures in the world.

Standing there last night, Clinton proved how you can come to do that which you never imagined.  He's not thinking about the next election as much as eternity. The heart patient who's replaced Big Macs with tofu now has a head too big for his slim body, and a wistful demeanor rather than a red face. With his ailing heart,  he races around the globe trying to save it, mentioning often how his days are numbered. He used up one in Charlotte. His life is now in dying order.

(Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)


-0- Sep/06/2012 17:25 GMT