Elvis was so in the building.
Bill Clinton tonight showed them all how it’s done. He gave a master class in how to combine folksy and poetic language, stinging one-liners and policy nuance, empathy and rip-roaring partisanship. It was as good as it gets.
A quick caveat is necessary about the effects of the speech. No, it’s not going to suddenly make voters run out and vote for Barack Obama; I don’t know how to judge these things, but I sort of doubt that it was as good at energizing Democrats as Michelle Obama’s excellent effort last night. On the other hand, you’re going to hear some silly analysis about Clinton’s speech somehow or another hurting Obama. That’s nonsense.
What the conventions do, and do very well, is to remind voters who “should” be supporting a party but haven’t quite realized it yet – partisan leaners; stated independents who swear that they vote the person, not the party, and yet always seem to happen to like candidates who are all from the same party; solid partisans who said they would swear off their party or even politics forever after some slight or disappointment – to come back home.
The other thing that conventions do is they remind and educate partisans about what exactly the party stands for. Serious political junkies may not quite believe it, but lots of people really just don’t remember much about politics and policy between election seasons, or keep up with what’s new. When they tune into the convention, or see the highlights on the news, or see interviews with party big shots on the network morning shows or the cable nets between sessions, they get learn what it is that their side is talking about.
And that’s what Bill Clinton did tonight, about as much as anyone could. It’s not just that he was a reminder of happy times for Democrats. It’s that he covered the issues – the arguments – that Democrats are making (or should be making!) this year. One by one, one after another, with good cheer and with a seemingly bottomless supply of facts and anecdotes and ad-libs. All, as he returned to again and again and again, in service of the very simple case that Barack Obama had done a pretty good job after all – and that the Romney/Ryan ticket was too far from the mainstream to be win.
I’ll single out just one section. Democrats have been making the factually sketchy claim that Mitt Romney’s tax plan and budget plan amounts to a plan to raise taxes on the middle class. That’s not quite correct, as Annie Lowrey explains. Romney has just made incompatible promises, including a promise not to raise middle class taxes. The truth is he’ll have to break one or more of those promises – and Bill Clinton, unlike the other speakers (and a fair number of liberal bloggers), took his audience through three possibilities, ending with what I’d agree is the most likely – that Romney would keep his promises on tax rate cuts, forget about most of the rest, and juts blow up the deficit. Clinton explained that fairly complex (three options!) situation clearly, and with enthusiasm and relish. Just terrific.
There’s good reason to believe that there’s a fairly low ceiling for Barack Obama’s convention bounce; the bounceologists have been predicting just a point or two. But after two nights, I’ll say one thing: to the extent that bounces are produced by outstanding headline speeches, the Democrats are certainly well on their way to maximizing it.