The night before giving a full-throated endorsement of Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic convention, Bill Clinton sat behind a hulking wooden desk in the center of his suite, scribbling furiously on a dog-eared yellow legal pad. A party brewed around him: Family and friends toasting Hillary Rodham Clinton with beer and champagne for her just-delivered address.
Clinton was feeling pressure. Deep into the night, he ignored partiers while drawing black lines through his handwritten text. Scribble. Scratch. Scribble. At 3 a.m. or so, he peered over his reading glasses and told a departing reporter: “I gotta get this right. Gotta get this right.”
Clinton got it right. That night, the nation’s 42nd president denounced GOP economic policies and promised Americans that a President Obama would return the nation to the halcyon days of the Clinton presidency.
Four years later, William Jefferson Clinton has the same mission—and will deliver a speech tonight with echoes of 2008.
Associates say that the address will attempt to eviscerate GOP attacks on Obama for failure of leadership on debt and deficit issues. Clinton finds GOP calls for fiscal rectitude galling after watching decisions in the Bush years erode the surpluses created on his watch.
If past is a prologue, Clinton will be sweating the details of tonight’s speech, scribbling and scratching. As it was in 2008, this is a moment of enormous opportunity and risk.
Risk: Clinton has a history of self-indulgence that he kept in check in the ’08 address. Whose presidency will he tout this week—his or Obama’s?
Risk: Clinton might be an unintended reminder that Obama didn’t live up to his ’08 promise. Although the incumbent will claim credit for averting an economic crisis in 2009, millions of Americans are still without work, over-mortgaged and feeling that the country is on the wrong track.
Opportunity: As he showed in ’08, Clinton knows how to go negative without turning off politics-averse swing voters, a rare gift. He can do Obama’s dirty work on GOP nominee Mitt Romney. “I don’t think he needs to gild the lily. I don’t think he needs to put spin on the ball,” Obama adviser David Axelrod said. “All he needs to do is [give] the facts.”
Opportunity: His address on Wednesday night could be “the perfect setup for an Obama spike,” said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon. Using almost precisely the same language, several Democrats—including Obama campaign officials—said on Sunday that nobody frames an election better than Bill Clinton. Is that a backhanded way of raising doubts about Obama’s ability?
“I don’t think so,” Axelrod said. “The truth is, there is nobody on the planet better [than Clinton] at debunking the Republican fiscal record.”
Not even Obama.
The best evidence of Clinton’s ability is the 2008 address he hammered out during the party in his suite. This passage in particular: “They took us from record surpluses to an exploding debt; from over 22 million new jobs to just 5 million; from increasing working families’ incomes to nearly $7,500 a year to a decline of more than $2,000 a year; from almost 8 million Americans lifted out of poverty to more than 5.5 million driven into poverty; and millions more losing their health insurance.”
“Now,” Clinton continued, “in spite of all this evidence, their candidate is actually promising more of the same. Think about it: more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans that will swell the deficit, increase inequality, and weaken the economy; more Band-Aids for health care that will enrich insurance companies, impoverish families, and increase the number of uninsured.”
Axelrod laughed knowingly when Clinton’s words were read back to him. “He could recite that passage you just read to me again, and it would still be fresh,” he said.
Clinton “took on the same theories and dogmas” that Obama faces, Axelrod said.
Advisers working on the speech say the former president is voraciously gathering economic data to contrast where the country is now—with slow but consistent job growth—to where it was when Obama took office. Clinton has discussed the speech in broad terms with Axelrod and other Obama associates. But will the campaign review it before it’s delivered?
“Well,” Axelrod chuckled, “there’s always the question of: When is he done with the speech?” He recalled that Clinton once rewrote a State of the Union address en route to the Capitol.
If Clinton references his presidency too often, he would violate one of his own axioms: Campaigns are about the future. He also likes to say that hope trumps nostalgia.
“He is as good as they come as a surrogate at this point and will be great about making sure it is about Obama and not the ’90s,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who once worked for Clinton and is not with Obama’s campaign.
Lehane said Clinton’s most important role might be energizing loyal Democratic voters. The so-called base is squishy on Obama.
Romney’s decision to include Clinton’s image signing the 1996 welfare-reform law while alleging that Obama undermined the law’s work requirements has left the former president seething and eager to respond, associates say.
The ad is inaccurate. But GOP polling suggests it has been effective in exploiting racial misgivings of white middle-class voters, turning some away from Obama.
“Romney should never have put Clinton in that welfare ad,” said longtime Democratic strategist Tad Devine. “Now, it’s personal. They’ve gone after a part of his presidency and tried to use it against Obama, and he’s going to take their head off. He will undo $10 million of TV advertising with two paragraphs in his speech.”
An angry Bill Clinton, however, is not necessarily a good one.
Privately, Democrats recall that Clinton was a poor surrogate for his wife, who lost the Democratic nomination to Obama four years ago. Many reasons are offered for his missteps—selfishness, age, and rustiness among them. Perhaps his biggest blind spot was a too-thin skin: Although Clinton learned long ago how to deftly respond to attacks on his record and character, he lost his cool—and steady touch—when the target was his wife.
A longtime Clinton associate put it this way: “He took it too damn personal.” And that may explain why Clinton became a good surrogate for Obama in 2008: It wasn’t personal. It was just politics.
Which is it now? That answer may determine whether Democrats are toasting their fortunes tonight and beyond.