Tonight, former president Bill Clinton gives the official nominating speech for the Democratic National Convention. It’s an understatement to say there’s a good deal of anticipation around what Clinton will say. For as much as both campaigns are focused on the future, this election is as much a referendom on Clinton’s presidency as it is a choice between two competing visions.
President Obama has explicitly presented himself as the natural extension of Clinton’s legacy. His administration is staffed with Clinton veterans, his secretary of state is the former First Lady, and his signature policies are a more muscular spin on the centrist approach that characterized Clinton’s first term. Indeed, one of the most recent television ads from Team Obama — “Clear Choice” — features Clinton as he speaks directly into the camera and tells viewers: “President Obama has a plan to rebuild America from the ground up, investing in innovation, education and job training. It only works if there is a strong middle class. That’s what happened when I was president. We need to keep going with his plan.”
Despite his opposition to Obama’s Clintonian agenda — including a return to Clinton-era income tax rates on high income — Mitt Romney has also tried to position himeslf as the natural heir to the former president’s legacy. Tactically, this is a smart move. George W. Bush is toxic; he’s unpopular with a large swath of America, and a majority of voters still blame him for the current economic situation. If Romney can’t reach back to the last Republican president to make his case, the next best bet is a president beloved for this economic stewardship, even if he’s a Democrat.
To make this case, and appeal to the working-class whites who — along with African Americans — formed the core of Clinton’s base, Romney has turned himself into a defender of Clintonian welfare reform, even if it requires him to falsely charge that Obama is “gutting” the 1996 law.
Likewise, he and his surrogates have peppered their rhetoric with praise for Clinton and criticism for Obama, in something that resembles what Greg has called a “good Democrat, bad Democrat” routine. In today’s New Hampshire Union Leader, John Sununu pushed back on the idea that Obama could claim any part of Clinton’s legacy. “[W]hile President Obama and his allies would love to be able to borrow credibility from the nation’s 42nd President, the contrast between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — particularly when it comes to economic and fiscal issues — couldn’t be greater.” Paul Ryan played the same game today.
The problem is that most voters remember when fifteen years ago, when Clinton was “Slick Willie” and Republicans tarred him as the worst thing to happen to the presidency. Today’s most senior Republicans — like Speaker John Boehner — began their careers as part of the intense Republican opposition to Clinton’s presidency, which — like the one facing Obama — began from the moment of his inauguration. Indeed, along with the large bulk of the GOP, at least five speakers at the Republican National Convention voted to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998.
Romney has every reason to want to tie himself to Clinton, but as a strategy for winning the election, it’s too clever by half. The 1990s weren’t a long time ago, and it’s absurd to think that voters have forgotten about impeachment. By tying himself to Clinton, Romney makes two mistakes: he gives Democrats a chance to highlight his opportunism, and opens himself to a blistering reply from the man himself. Tonight, we’ll probably see a little bit of both.