COMMENTARY | CHARLOTTE, NC -- When Bill Clinton took the stage in Time Warner Arena last week and delivered the speech of his life -- on behalf of Barack Obama -- he all but guaranteed Obama's re-election. Sure, Obama could stumble in the debates or there could be an October surprise -- Israel attacking Iran -- but for the most part, it's over. The Clinton bounce will return to President Obama to the White House.
This time, the conventions mattered.
Clinton was the game changer.
People read energy and body language as much as they listen to content in a speech, and the energy in Time Warner Arena last week during Clinton's speech was electric, as palpable as the night the Rolling Stones opened the place in October 2005. Clinton repeated his TV ad on stage, saying our plan works, theirs doesn't. Though Obama's speech was ordinary, more clichéd and partisan and pragmatic than lofty, the Clinton connection showcased one of his strongest skills: His ability to heal the rift with the Clinton machine after the 2008 Democratic primary slugfest between him and Hillary.
Hillary Clinton was not only a visionary hire, she brought along Obama's ace card: Bill.
As Newsweek pointed out, Obama needs to give up the identity politics and follow Clinton's track as a moderate, pro-business Democrat. Either way, he'll be re-elected. Obama is the incumbent, and with incumbency comes huge advantages. His hire, and Bush's appointee, Ben Bernanke controls the fed, and Obama serves as commander-in-chief. Being the incumbent is like holding the home-field advantage in a raucous college football environment. Think Baton Rouge or Blacksburg on a Saturday night. That's what the Charlotte convention was like. Loud. Electric. Focused.
The Democrats message in Charlotte was clear. It's the middle class, stupid.
The new metrics
The Republican Party does not have a living economic success story to rival Bill Clinton's, and Americans who watched the Democratic convention were sold not by Obama, but the idea that he is in the junior partner in the firm of Clinton, Biden, Obama & Clinton. With Clinton's speech, and Hillary Clinton as a stellar Secretary of State, swing voters see Obama as a continuation of the Clinton Administration and Gov. Romney as an extension of George W. Bush's eight years.
The post-convention bounce revealed a huge movement toward Obama among men and in swing states. Some of that will change. I still get emails from angry white guys who play golf and belong to to country clubs who hate Obama.
But much of it will stick.
I have yet to receive even one email from a woman who hates Obama.
As Clinton mentioned, some Republicans hate Obama and the Clintons, and they are pouring millions into SuperPACs aimed at beating him. Doesn't matter. Run all the ads they want, more Americans think the Obama/Clinton ticket understands their problems than believe Romney/Bush does. Just by his presence, Clinton reminds people of the go-go nineties, and that the creative class in America -- think Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg -- doesn't worry about taxes when they create businesses.
Bankers, brokers and corporate raiders worry about taxes, not engineers and scientists and artists. They just create. The tax rate could have been 80 percent, and Steve Jobs would have created Apple. He had no choice. He could not have created Apple anymore than Michelangelo could not have re-created David. The stock market rose when Clinton and Obama have been in office, and dropped under W. To most Americans, particularly people who are working, Obama inherited Bush's mess.
Our plan works. Theirs doesn't.
Americans figure if Gov. Romney is only paying 14 percent in taxes -- his number -- then if they get rich they will either a) pay up or b) figure a way around it, too. if Romney won't show a decade of tax returns, as his own father, George Romney, proposed when he ran for president, an ordinary person would like to know if he or she would take the same tax breaks as Gov. Romney does, or if he or she would make an effort to get rid of that tax break.
Instead, Mitt's been mum.
No doubt, Gov. Romney's tax breaks are legal. But he's been silent in what tax breaks he's taken advantage of, and what changes he would make to the tax code. That hurts him. He's the challenger. Not the incumbent. He needs to be more specific than the incumbent, not less. We already know what the incumbent has done. In the NBA, they used to say you had to be 16 points better on any given night to win on the road. Same with politics and incumbency.
You have to be more transparent and specific against a popular incumbent. Not less.
What we learned from the Republican Convention in Tampa, as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-SC, pointed out to the Washington Post, is that the Republican Party represents a dying breed. Clint Eastwood was not a mistake, he was a metaphor. "We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term." Graham said.
Ed Rollins, a senior strategist, called his his party "a bunch of old white guys" swimming against the tide. "We need to basically broaden the base, we need to have more women, we need to have more Latinos, we need to have more African-Americans."
That doesn't mean the Republicans aren't right about the debt, or the jobs crisis or reforming Medicare. Great points, all. But as of today, with their genuflects to the Tea Party and Grover Norquist, the GOP does not have a senior statesman who can say it with the gravitas of Clinton. Trot George W. Bush out in Tampa, and he reminds American he was the junior partner of Cheney, Rumsfeld & Bush. With the Cheney/Bush administration, independents equate an Iraq war that cost trillions with the subprime crisis and today, the failure to stop 9-11.
Everybody loves Bill
Even the Bush family likes Clinton. Barbara Bush said Clinton is "a good fellow" who is "very thoughtful about calling." "He never said a mean word about anyone," she said in an interview with Parade. She revealed that her sons -- including, W, call him "My brother by another mother." Further, George H. W. Bush has worked with Clinton on several global initiatives and Ms. Bush says Clinton sees the elder Bush as the father he never had.
Clinton listens well.
Likewise, the GOP does not have a Warren Buffett in its corner, a respected capitalist who has been every bit as successful in the business world as Gov. Romney. Buffett warned about derivatives and the deregulation of the financial industry in 2003 and tells Fox News he is still 100 percent with Obama. With Buffett as with Clinton, Americans see successful and cautious elder statement guiding the ship. Fair or unfair, Americans equate Cheney with the Iraq war, bankers with failure and Republicans with intolerance. There's no one on the GOP team that the country trusts can run the economy and foreign policy as well as the three Bs: Billary, Buffett and Barack.
As Jeb Bush noted, Ronald Reagan and his father could not get elected in the current milieu of the uncompromising, hyper-partisan GOP. "They would have a hard time if you define Republican Party," he said, "and I don't, as having an orthodoxy that doesn't allow for disagreement, doesn't allow for finding some common ground." Part of Reagan's magic was that when he was attacked, he used diplomacy and charm and to turn the attack on the attacker.
With Reagan gone, the GOP has no one on the horizon who can match Clinton. And with that lack of compromise that Norquist and the Tea Party insist on, that ideological purity, the GOP's best ideas and minds are lost. Meanwhile Clinton soldiers on. He relishes the idea of Clinton III.
And Clinton IV if Hillary wants a shot in 2016.
When I was covering politics with The Charlotte Observer, I interviewed Sen. John Edwards in 2001, right after he'd been vetted by Al Gore as a vice president candidate. I pointedly asked him who was the smartest person he'd met in Washington. Easy, he said. Bill. "Clinton can intake very complex ideas and turn them around and give them back to you in layman's terms in minutes."
That's what Clinton did last week in Charlotte.
He turned the debate around in terms of arithmetic, in layman's terms. He didn't use class warfare, or identity politics. He made a simple case that the Republican math helps the people who have benefited from corporate welfare, i.e. the banks and corporations, while the middle class struggles. That case for a strong middle class, plus the electoral map, will put Obama back in the White House. America can only hope the president will continue to take Clinton's lead as a moderate, pro-business Democrat when he gets there.