The Democrats began the second day of their convention by literally booing God and Jerusalem, so there was nowhere to go but up. I don’t think they got very far, though.
As they did on Tuesday, they spent the hours leading up to their 10pm network coverage indulging some of the party’s most unappealing interest groups and constituencies, and once again emphasizing abortion to an amazing degree. The schedule got away from them (helped perhaps by the bizarre and embarrassing platform fight that started the session), and no doubt to the horror of the organizers they found themselves starting the 10 o’clock hour with Sandra Fluke—the law student who, evidently having not yet reached the First Amendment in her con-law class, insisted that although she could afford tuition at one of the nation’s most expensive universities that Catholic institution should be made to pay for her contraception. They’re just lucky that anyone not initiated in the intricacies of angry feminist rhetoric probably couldn’t actually understand what the subject of her speech was.
The star of the night was Bill Clinton, however, and his task was to speak to swing voters and persuade them that Barack Obama deserves another chance. He did his best, and Clinton is certainly an able storyteller, which really can’t be said of many political figures today. But the means he chose to tell his story helped illuminate how difficult Obama’s challenge really is.
Clinton argued, for instance, that Democratic presidents had seen more jobs created during their terms than Republican presidents in the postwar era, which is certainly interesting, but it doesn’t change the fact that during the term of the particular Democratic president now running for re-election there has been a net job loss. He spoke of the value of bipartisanship, but in search of examples of President Obama’s willingness to reach across the aisle he talked almost exclusively about Obama putting up with Democrats who had dared to oppose him in the primaries.
He tried to make a positive case for Obamacare, but could only point to things like tiny refunds from insurance companies to employers, seniors getting some free checkups, and 26-year-olds who can’t get a job in the Obama economy getting covered on their parents’ plans. The attempt to paint these tiny giveaways as the essence of Obamacare—which is how most Democrats now try to talk about it—is just preposterous. This law involves almost two trillion dollars in new spending, $800 billion in tax hikes, an unaccountable board rationing care for the elderly, a new unsustainable middle-class entitlement, new burdens on employers, and millions of families losing the coverage they have now, all to leave health-care costs growing uncontrollably and 30 million people uninsured. (And Clinton’s attempt to suggest that the somewhat lower growth of health costs in recent years has to do with Obamacare is ridiculous—it’s certainly a function of the Obama economy, as health costs grow more slowly in periods of poor economic growth, but not of the new law.)
On Medicare, the most interesting thing was that Clinton basically avoided criticizing the Romney-Ryan premium-support reform. His case was almost exclusively defensive: Insisting that cutting Medicare to fund Obamacare won’t affect seniors’ benefits (but alas, in a fee-for-service system it would).
At the end of the day, Clinton’s basic case for Obama was “no one could have fixed the economy, not even me.” And his case against Romney and Ryan was the usual Democratic line: they want to repeat the mistakes that caused the crisis, and they are radical individualists.
Maybe this kind of story, with Clinton’s usual straw men and the appearance of some policy discussion, will help Obama some, but it’s not easy to see how. I thought Clinton might make a real pitch to working-class independents, sort of teaching Obama how he should be running. But this endless laundry list of a speech didn’t do that, and maybe there just isn’t any way to quite do that. Clinton could offer essentially no argument for why another four years would be any different than the past four, and why the past four have been anything other than a failure.