Elvis was back in the room, riffing to his own impeccable tune. Name me another politician who can converse in everyday language about policy for 45 minutes, then announce, at 11:15 p.m., “Let’s talk about debt” — and still hold his audience. As they used to say back in Arkansas, the man can talk a dog off a meat truck.
But rather than itemize all the ways that Bill Clinton made the best possible case for Barack Obama’s re-election (whether it’s a persuasive case is up to the voters), and rather than deconstruct in detail his evisceration of the obstructionist GOP, I’ll focus here on three specific items:
1. During his critique of what he called the GOP’s “alternative reality,” he demolished the persistent Romney-Ryan lie about how Obama has supposedly gutted the federal welfare-to-work law. As I’ve noted here several times, the Republican ticket has repeatedly claimed on the stump and in a series of TV ads that Obama doesn’t care whether welfare recipients work or not, that he just wants to send them welfare checks. Ryan said it again yesterday. But the GOP’s biggest mistake was to feature Clinton in one of those TV ads. He’s the guy who signed the law, and the Romney ad basically says that Obama is betraying Clinton’s laudable legacy.
So, for Clinton, this Republican lie is personal. Which is why, last night, he proceeded to scrape the Republicans off the sole of his shoe:
“Let’s look at the other big charge the Republicans made. It’s a real doozy. They actually have charged and run ads saying that President Obama wants to weaken the work requirements in the welfare reform bill I signed that moved millions of people from welfare to work. You need to know, here’s what happened ….
“When some Republican governors asked if they could have waivers to try new ways to put people on welfare back to work, the Obama administration listened …. And the administration agreed to give waivers to those governors and others only if they had a credible plan to increase employment by 20 percent, and they could keep the waivers only if they did increase employment. Now, did I make myself clear? The requirement was for more work, not less.
“So this is personal to me …. It’s a big deal. But I am telling you the claim that President Obama weakened welfare reform’s work requirement is just not true. But they keep on running the ads claiming it. You want to know why? Their campaign pollster said, ‘we are not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.’ Now, finally I can say, that is true. I couldn’t have said it better myself. And I hope you and every American within the sound of my voice remembers it every time they see one of those ads…”
2. He slam-dunked the persistent Republican lie about how Obama has supposedly damaged the quality of seniors’ health care by shifting $716 billion out of Medicare program. Many people have exposed the GOP claim for what it is, but Clinton’s critique matters more, given the fact that his Gallup approval rating sits at 69 percent:
“Both Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan attacked the president for allegedly robbing Medicare of $716 billion …. Look, here’s what really happened. You be the judge. Here’s what really happened. There were no cuts to benefits at all. None. What the president did was to save money by taking the recommendations of a commission of professionals to cut unwarranted subsidies to providers and insurance companies that were not making people healthier and were not necessary to get the providers to provide the service.
“And instead of raiding Medicare, he used the savings to close the doughnut hole in the Medicare drug program, and — you all got to listen carefully to this; this is really important — and to add eight years to the life of the Medicare trust fund so it is solvent till 2024.
“So President Obama and the Democrats didn’t weaken Medicare; they strengthened Medicare. Now, when Congressman Ryan looked into that TV camera and attacked President Obama’s Medicare savings as ‘the biggest, coldest power play,’ I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry — because that $716 billion is exactly, to the dollar, the same amount of Medicare savings that he has in his own budget!
“You got to get this one thing: It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.”
That last line was not in the original prepared text. Clinton improvised it. As one Republican strategist said last night, “I wish our side had someone who can talk like that.”
3. He made a better case for Obama’s re-election than Obama can probably make for himself. Clinton’s pitch obviously won’t sway the Obama-haters, but they were not his intended audience. Swing-voting independents love Clinton. He was talking to them:
“I like the argument for President Obama’s re-election …. Here it is. He inherited a deeply damaged economy. He put a floor under the crash. He began the long, hard road to recovery and laid the foundation for a modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs, vibrant new businesses and lots of new wealth for innovators. Now, are we where we want to be today? No. Is the president satisfied? Of course not. But are we better off than we were when he took office?
“Listen to this. Listen to this. Everybody, when President Barack Obama took office, the economy was in free fall. It had just shrunk nine full percent of GDP. We were losing 750,000 jobs a month. Are we doing better than that today? The answer is yes ….
“President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did (in 1993). Listen to me, now. No president — no president, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one – could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years. But he has laid the foundation for a new, modern, successful economy of shared prosperity. And if you will renew the president’s contract, you will feel it. You will feel it.
“Folks, whether the American people believe what I just said or not may be the whole election. I just want you to know that I believe it. With all my heart, I believe it.”
Those words on your computer screen can’t possibly convey the colloquial power of Clinton’s delivery (he’ll soon repeat it on the stump in swing states), or the passion that he unleashed in the hall. No doubt it struck many TV viewers as pure hooey. But savvy Republicans know what they saw. As GOP strategist Alex Castellanos said last night on CNN, “This will be the moment that probably re-elected Barack Obama.”
Indeed, I would argue that Clinton’s speech for Obama trumped all the fervor that ex-president George W. Bush generated last week in his speech for Romney … oh, wait!
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