Denver — The reviews are in, and Bill Clinton has given the best speech of the Democratic convention thus far. True, the bar hadn’t been set at a daunting height for the most talented politician of his generation — but credit is due where credit is due. Bill Clinton’s speech was an impressive display of partisan red meat at a convention that was showing signs of anemia. Watching the soporific John Kerry come out after Clinton was like watching Tiny Tim stroll on stage with his ukulele seconds after Jimi Hendrix had dropped his still-scorching Stratocaster.
That, however, is all the Clinton speech was — a rousing partisan screed. Alleged acrimony between the Clinton and Obama campaigns has been much buzzed about all week — and not for nothing. The on-camera denials have been as unconvincing as the off-the-record gripes have been frequent. Even when Barack Obama made his “surprise” appearance at the end of the night and singled out the Clintons for their support, you could almost hear Bill and Hillary restating their tentative endorsement through clenhed teeth: America deserves Barack Obama . . . good and hard.
And so the question remains: Did Bill Clinton endorse Barack Obama? Clinton’s made the case, with a masterful display of rhetoric, for the Democratic candidate. But he didn’t offer the specific endorsement of Barack Obama many were hoping for.
Not that he ignored Obama. On the contrary, he praised Obama’s “remarkable ability to inspire people”; he said Obama has the “intelligence and curiosity every successful president needs”; Obama has “shown a clear grasp of our foreign-policy and national-security challenges”; and Obama’s “policies on the economy, taxes, health care, and energy are far superior to the Republican alternatives.”
Still, what praise he offered did little to tamp down the dominant subtext of Clinton/Obama strife. Far superior to Republican alternatives? I don’t imagine “Barack Obama — because he’s better than the other guy” would prove to be an especially compelling campaign slogan. Further, Clinton’s praise of Obama’s amorphous personal qualities should probably be considered in light of his recent remarks at the convention, remarks widely read as a shot at Obama.
“For example, you’re a voter and you have Candidate X and Candidate Y,” Clinton said. “Candidate X agrees with you on everything. But you don’t think that person can deliver on anything. Candidate Y disagrees with you on half the issues, but you believe that, on the other half, the candidate will be able to deliver. For whom will you vote?”
So, while Clinton praised Obama’s ability to inspire, it’s clear he values perspiration over inspiration. He praises Obama’s policies even as he doubts Obama’s ability to enact any of his sweeping agenda. Many were looking to the Clintons to quell doubts about Obama’s lack of experience. Given Hillary’s sharp attacks on that very issue in the primary — e.g., “I know Senator McCain has a lifetime of experience that he will bring to the White House. And Senator Obama has a speech he gave in 2002” — this would have been nearly impossible to do in a convincing fashion. And so the Clintons didn’t even try.
At other times in the speech, Clinton appeared to be simply insincere. (Imagine that!) He declared that “in [Obama’s] first presidential decision, the selection of a running mate, he hit it out of the park.” Given the polling data in response, the only person who believes that the selection of Biden amounts to a political home run is Joe Biden. Of Clinton’s entire speech, puffing up Joe Biden was the only place where Clinton appeared to be willing to carry water for Obama. And even then he may have been motivated more by affection for the old Washington fixture than by a desire to help Obama.
And of course, Bill Clinton spent ample time discussing his favorite subject — himself. Over the course of several paragraphs, he tried to dismantle the Bush economic record and link Bush’s policies to McCain. Naturally, he did this by comparing it to his own tenure in the White House, a self-professed “new era of peace and broadly shared prosperity.”
The aim of Bill Clinton’s speech and Hillary’s the night before was clear: to do just enough that they can’t be blamed in the event of an Obama loss. To be fair, the Clintons can hardly be blamed for not going out of their way. Obama’s bizarre and open slighting of the Clintons — he refused to even go through the motions of vetting Hillary as a vice-presidential candidate — has let them know that Obama is unwilling to acknowledge them or capitalize on their considerable talent and accomplishments.
So having proven his party loyalty and once again burnished his legacy, Bill Clinton found himself leaving on a jet plane, immediately after Wednesday events. He will be long gone by the time Obama gives his acceptance speech at Invesco field on Thursday evening. Knowing Clinton, he likely spent the entire red-eye flight keeping people awake. But if Bill Clinton did manage to get any sleep on the flight, it’s a safe bet he dreamed of 2012.
– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.