The Washington Post

Clinton’s talkfest

You know the old joke about the restaurant: The food isn’t very good, and the portions are too small? My reaction to Clinton’s speech was the opposite: The substance was great, but so much of it?

Discipline has never been Clinton’s hallmark. Or brevity. Rhetorical brilliance — in particular, an ability to translate wonkish details into folksy, accessible language — has been. Wednesday night showed that nothing has changed.

You could imagine Clinton in Chappaqua, watching the Republicans in Tampa and yelling at the screen. You know he was stewing over Democrats’ failure to adequately answer those attacks. Wednesday was his time to vent.

There was no issue left behind: Comparative jobs numbers under Republican and Democratic presidents. The auto industry under President Obama, with a detour into mileage standards. The boom in oil and gas production. The rate of health-care cost increases. The role of Medicaid in nursing home care. The legitimacy of the GOP attack on Obama’s welfare waiver.

“Now, let’s talk about the debt,” Clinton said at one point. He was about three-fourths through.

It was a one-stop-shopping refutation of all the Republican arguments against Obama. Every single one of them.

How effective you think this was depends in part on your theory of how conventions matter. Are the parties communicating with voters through unmediated speeches in the compressed, hour-a-night primetime slot? Or does the message of conventions get through to voters more indirectly, through the filter of the ensuing news — and comedy — coverage. Think Plato’s Cave, except the shadows on the wall through which voters perceive what happened come from “Good Morning America” and “The Colbert Report.”

I have been tending toward the Plato’s Cave theory of convention impact, in which case my Clinton critique may be overstated: If what matters isn’t the entirety of the performance itself but the reviews of same, the sound bites plucked out and constantly rerun, then Clinton’s marathon — and at least it was under three hours — may not have mattered as much.

But this is what Clinton himself would call a false choice, between length and impact. It could have been more succinct, more focused on Clinton’s fundamental message. Then again, that wouldn’t have been vintage Clinton.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy.

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