Former President Clinton on Wednesday framed the election in ways that Barack Obama simply cannot—so negative and nostalgic that his was a dirty job. One better left to a master politician who will never face voters again.
In a folksy yet brutally partisan convention address that captivated his fellow Democrats, Clinton branded the GOP as extremist and obstructionist and hateful. He cast the 1990s as good times worth repeating under a Democratic president. And he took the central question of Mitt Romney’s campaign—“Are you better off than you were four years ago”—and turned it on its head.
“No president—not me or anyone before me—no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years,” Clinton said of the economy. "But conditions are improving and if you’ll renew the president’s contract you will feel it.”
With a classically Clinton address—on message and a bit too long—the former president said things that Obama could not due to political limitations. By doing so, he cleared a path for Obama to be forward-looking and aspirational in the convention-closing address on Thursday night, and he defined the race better than Obama is capable of.
Obama joined Clinton on stage after the 50-minute address, a powerful show of unity between two former political rivals (Obama bested Clinton’s wife for the 2008 Democratic nomination).
A harshly negative acceptance speech would jeopardize Obama’s likability ratings as well as his presidency, his advisers believe. And yet their strategy requires that Romney be disqualified as an alternative to the embattled president.
So that left Clinton doing what he does so well.
“They think government is always the enemy, they are always right and compromise is weakness,” the former president said of the GOP. Democrats, meanwhile, “focus on solving problems and seizing opportunities and not fighting all the time.”
One of the tools that made Clinton such a good politician was his ability to go negative on an opponent without appearing overtly personal. He killed with razor slices, not ax handles. His backhanded compliments left scars. And he relished the role of victim when it made his opponent look like a bully.
Remember, he used a government shutdown and impeachment to brand the GOP as extremist.
His old rivals will tell you about the classic Clinton bait-and-switch: Start a sentence with a compliment and end it with a punch. This is what Clinton did on Wednesday night: “Though I often disagree with Republicans, I never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate president and the Democrats.”
A less subtle politician would say he hates Republicans. Clinton says Republicans are hateful.
“Democracy does not have to be a bloodsport,” he said in one of the strongest comments of the night, and one that was completely off script.
For a guy whose 1992 campaign theme was “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)”, Clinton sure loves his yesterdays. He reminded Americans just how dire the economic situation was when Obama took office, and how much better the economy was during his presidency.
The data-loving president said that in the last 52 years, 42 million jobs were created under Democratic presidents and just 24 million under Republican leaders.
He said that Republicans want to return to policies that cut taxes for the rich, weaken financial regulations, raise defense spending beyond Pentagon needs, and cut spending on programs that help the middle class and poor.
“As another president once said,” Clinton said, channeling President Reagan, a Republican, “ 'There they go again.' ”
Obama, however, is all about tomorrows: His biggest job on Thursday will be putting forth an optimistic, forward-looking vision for the country.
With his piercing look through the rearview mirror, Clinton made it easier for Obama to focus on the future.
Clinton is the master at election “framing,” which is a fancy word for explaining to voters exactly why and how a particular candidate is their best choice. In 1992, he knew it was all about the economy, stupid. Four years later, the economy was bouncing back but social, economic and technological change created an anxious public; Clinton promised to “build a bridge to the 21st century.”
For his “frame” against Obama, Romney has turned to the 1980 campaign of Ronald Reagan, who asked voters whether they were better off than they were four years prior.
Clinton believes—he has always believed this—that Reagan’s success with that frame was an aberration. He is convinced that voters don’t make political decisions based on the amount of progress they’ve made in their lives; they look instead for a candidate who can put them back on the right trajectory.
As Clinton likes to say, elections are about the future.
And so he turned Romney’s frame on its head: “The most important question is, what kind of country do you want to live in? If you want a ‘you’re-on-your-own,’ winner-take-all society, you should support the Republican ticket,” Clinton said, slyly. “If you want a country of shared prosperity and share responsibility—a ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ society—you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”
Obama must make this frame work because, in fact, most voters think they are worse off than four years ago.