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Posted at 09:44 AM ET, 09/06/2012

The Morning Plum: Bill Clinton’s speech and the ideological clash over government

As many have noted already, the key to the success of Bill Clinton’s speech last night was its policy specificity and the substantive nature of its rebuttal of all the main GOP arguments against Obama. But it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Clinton drew a very sharp big-picture of the contrast of larger visions on display in this campaign. E.J. Dionne:

That Clinton, the cheerful political educator, played such a central role at this conclave reflected the extent to which it should be seen as a three-day tutorial designed not only to defend President Obama’s economic stewardship but also to advance a view of government for which, over the past 40 years, Democrats have often apologized...with Republicans putting forward the most emphatically pro-business, anti-government agenda since the Gilded Age, Democrats feel an urgency to assert the state’s positive role. ..
He joined Elizabeth Warren, the financial reformer running for the Senate in Massachusetts, in presenting government Wednesday not as an officious meddler in people’s lives but as an ally of families determined to help their children rise. Government, Warren said, “gave the little guys a better chance to compete by preventing the big guys from rigging the markets.”
And there lay the other stark contrast between the Tampa Republicans and the Charlotte Democrats. Building their convention around an out-of-context quotation from Obama, Republicans offered a counter-theme, “We built it.” But the message of Tampa often came off more as: “We own it.” Working people and the dignity of labor receded into the shadows cast by the investors, entrepreneurs and business leaders.

Clinton repeatedly contrasted the GOP’s vision of a “winner take all, you’re on your own society” and the Dem vision of “a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibility — a we’re-all-in-this-together society.”

In retrospect, what’s striking about the two conventions is how little effort Republicans have made to dispute or push back on this contrast. In previous years, Republicans have gone out of their way to make extensive rhetorical paeans to government’s valid role and to our shared responsibility toward the vulnerable (George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism, for example). But look back on the convention speech delivered by Paul Ryan, the intellectual leader of the GOP and architect of its defining agenda. His suggestions that “we have responsibilities, one to another” and that “the true measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves” sounded almost like obligatory afterthoughts.

Romney and Ryan, of course, have been characterizing Obama's views as radically government-centric. What Clinton did last night is use his authority (and his talent in boiling down complex policy issues, which included a much-needed discussion of Medicaid) to reclaim the balanced center when it comes to government’s role in promoting opportunity and maintaining the safety net. And he did so by marginalizing the GOP vision as extreme, and by describing Obama's vision and accomplishments accurately and compellingly, undermining the phony GOP efforts to drive a wedge between the two Democratic presidents..

* The danger in elevating Clinton: MSNBC’s First Read crew gets this right:

Clinton’s speech last night epitomized the risk the Romney campaign took when it elevated Clinton ...there’s danger when you elevate someone who isn’t supporting your candidacy — you make that person seem like a fair arbiter in the contest and someone whose words carry extra weight...So in addition to Clinton’s defense of the past 3 ½ years and his critique of the current Republican Party, he also used his speech to play the role of fact-checker. He pointed out that modern Democratic presidents have created twice the jobs that GOP presidents had; he said that both the welfare and Medicare attacks on Obama aren’t accurate; and he stole a favorite talking point of Paul Ryan’s (“math”) and turned it against the GOP, arguing that the “arithmetic” in Romney’s budget math doesn’t add up.

* Obama to tackle entitlement reform in speech? So says campaign adviser Stephanie Cutter:

“I think you will hear the president layout his plan of balanced deficit reduction where everybody pays their fair share and we cut what we don’t need and that includes entitlement reform.”

Don’t expect too much specificity tonight. Still, the broader question is whether Obama will roll out some kind of proposal or vision for Medicare reform in the weeks ahead, to counter GOP attacks on him for not having a plan and to marginalize Paul Ryan’s Medicare vision as extreme, occupying the center of the debate.

* Defending Obama’s presidency: The Obama campaign is out with a new video that recaps Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech and lists all the “promises kept” from that speech in the subsequent four years ago. Among them: signing Lily Ledbetter and health care reform; increasing education funding; ending the war in Iraq; getting Bin Laden; and creating 4.5 million jobs (here the video is careful to say that these jobs were created in the last 29 months, after fact checkers had slapped down a more careless use of the number).

The video is a preview of what to expect tonight — and in the final stretch, when the Obama camp will pivot from a more defensive posture on the economy to a broader case for his whole presidency.

* Yes, the economy really is improving: Paul Krugman notes that inadequate stimulus continues to inflict huge economic suffering, but that there is clear evidence that the economy is healing. Note Krugman’s pint that the groundwork has been laid for a stronger recovery over the next four years — exactly the case Bill Clinton made last night, and exactly the case Obama needs to make effectively for the next two months.

Also: Steve Benen charts today's improving jobless claims numbers.

* Bill Clinton’s triumph: Jonathan Cohn is right: Bill Clinton’s speech, which was panned by pundits for being too long, will very likely get high marks from voters precisely because it was chock full of policy specificity and substantive rebuttals to GOP arguments. Also: As Cohn notes, Clinton was masterful in telling a complex political story — and if there’s anything that qualifies one, its Obama’s first term — in a simple and accessible way.

Also see Stephen Stromberg’s smart piece on why this story is difficult to tell — people “don’t naturally think in baselines.”

* And was this the moment that reelected the president? Via Taegan Goddard, this quote from GOP strategist Alex Castellanos got wide play on twitter last night, but it deserves a plug here:

“You don’t have to come back tomorrow. This convention is done. This will be the moment that probably re-elected Barack Obama.”

I certainly wouldn’t say that — there’s still a long way to go, including three debates, and the Romney forces are set to unleash $1 billion in ads — but it seems feasible that Clinton’s speech may go some way towards reframing the race for the voters who will decide it.

Apologies for the shorter-than-usual roundup; long night yesterday. What else?

By  |  09:44 AM ET, 09/06/2012

 
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