Bill Clinton puts Bill Clinton first


In theory, the highest and best use of Bill Clinton last night would have been a full-throated defense of President Obama’s first term, including an explanation of how this “yes we can” president turned the economy around and ushered in a new era of prosperity. But that speech was never an option. Even the most hack Democrat partisans aren’t going there.

The next best speech would have been a ringing attack on the Republicans that ripped Romney from stem to stern. This, after all, is the heart of Obama’s reelection message: Maybe I get an only an incomplete, but the other guy would flunk.

Clinton could have delivered such a dirt-dishing speech powerfully and effectively; the “Big Dog” in full cry is a beast to be feared. But the former president foreclosed this option early on when he praised his own bipartisanship and attacked Republicans for being too harshly negative towards their opponents. Clinton did some backsliding as the night went on. Yet, he served little red meat. This was not the Ted Kennedy-style denunciation that many Dems undoubtedly were hoping for.

Instead, the president attacked the Republicans by conducting a lengthy series of mini-policy seminars: Medicare, Medicaid, the debt, welfare reform in a nutshell.

Although Clinton included plenty of distortions, I credit him for debating policy at a national convention. These days, in its own, the idea is as novel as Clint Eastwood’s colloquy with the chair.

But this rambling speech fell far short of Clinton’s highest and best use. Indeed, he struggled to keep the attention of even his idolators on the convention floor (“now listen to this” or “this is the best one yet,” he kept imploring).

So why did Clinton opt for this approach? He did it, I think, to protect his brand. Clinton isn’t in it just to be a hero to Democrats. He wants to retain his hard-earned (and implausible) status as a respected elder statesman.

Give a Ted Kennedyesque speech and you start to become Ted Kennedy in the public mind — an aging lecher, loved by many, but widely hated too. Been there; done that, Clinton must feel. He’s not going back there for Barack Obama’s sake. In fact, I doubt he’ll go back there for Hillary’s.