President Clinton Speech at the DNC Emphasizes Substance Over Style
The Democratic National Convention is typically a banal affair, little more than a public relations stunt designed to galvanize the party before the November election. The presidential candidate is chosen months in advance through the now standard state primary system, making the convention more of a coronation ceremony than a competition between the nominees. The participants are all prescreened to prevent any unintended surprises. And the speeches, all pre-approved or else written by the convention committee consultants, are heavier on figurative language and alliteration and lighter on deep and substantive analysis of the issues.
This year’s convention was no different. Most of the speeches, delivered by a broad section of the Democratic party, sounded similar in content and tone—the same praise of the Obama, the same attacks against Republicans--and concluded with different takes on the word “forward,” the Democratic Party's newly minted campaign slogan. This is not to say that the speeches were unentertaining. But, like junk food, they had very little substantive value, and left you feeling a little ill.
The great exception to this was the speech President Clinton gave on the second night of convention, which some commentators are calling the best speech of his political career. Rather than relying on fancy rhetoric, broad generalizations, and tales of his hard scrabble past to make his case, the former president gave the audience, and the entire Democratic Party, what they most needed: policy, numbers, and statistics.
Like the prior and subsequent speakers, Clinton speech was directed at Republican accusations that the Obama administration is bad for the economy, the national debt, and health care. What made his refutation more convincing by far was the laser specificity of his remarks and the accuracy of his supporting facts—all of which were later verified by independent fact checkers. During his speech, he made a convincing argument that while the economy is certainly not where it should be it is irrefutably improving. More to the point, he argued that Obama’s policies are responsible for more growth than the Congressional Republican’s desire to stymie them. Specifically, he cites the restructuring of the auto industry, the 4.5 million private sector jobs created under Obama’s jobs plan, 500,000 of which are good paying manufacturing jobs, and his plans to revise the student loan distribution system. Meanwhile, rather than working to strengthen the floundering economy, Republicans have instead focused tirelessly on destroying the President’s reputation and ruin his chances at reelection.
“President Obama: plus 4 1/2 million. Congressional Republicans: zero,” he stated to wild applause.
In addressing Obama’s health care plan, perhaps the most significant and controversial aspect of his first term, Clinton handedly raised and knocked down every Republican accusation. Far from “Obamacare” being a disaster for the economy, Obama’s health care proposals have saved money for small businesses and provided insurance companies with more customers, ultimately improving our system and business. Indeed, he asserted and fact checkers later confirmed that “after going up at three times the rate of inflation for a decade, for the last two years health care costs have been under 4 percent in both for the first time in 50 years.”
Clinton also easily shot down the Republican remark that the administration had robbed Medicare of $716 billion--an assertion that was largely responsible for the Republican take over of Congress in 2010—and redirected the blame at Congressman Paul Ryan. It’s true, he argues, that Obama reduced the budget of the Medicare by cutting “unwarranted subsidies.” But he reinvested this money back into to Medicare to close a loophole in the drug program and, significantly, to extend the life of the Medicare trust fund by eight years, from 2016 to 2024.
“So President Obama and the Democrats didn’t weaken Medicare,” he claims to a roaring audience, “they strengthened Medicare. Now, when Congressman Ryan looked into that TV camera and attacked President Obama’s Medicare savings as, quote, the biggest, coldest power play, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” he continued, “because that $716 billion is exactly, to the dollar, the same amount of Medicare savings that he has in his own budget…It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.”
Lastly, the former President took aim at the administrations handling of the national debt, a major talking point for the Romney campaign, arguing that a Romney administration would be devastating for the national debt. While Obama’s “reasonable plan” would reduce the debt by $4 trillion by 2021 with a combination of spending control and revenue increase at a 2-to-1 ratio, Romney’s plan would either raise the national debt, or subject the budget to a draconian cuts that would undercut protections for the poor and the middleclass, the health and the sick. Romney’s plan, in sum, would cut taxes paid by the wealthy by $5 trillion and close as yet unidentified loopholes in the tax code. Clinton laid out the only three possible scenarios to achieve this level of cuts—they eliminate deductions, which will raise middle classes taxes by $2000; they will have to reduce spending substantially, threatening parks, college grants and loans, and early childhood education programs; or they will cut taxes without corresponding cuts, raising the national debt and weakening the overall economy.
The near unanimous response the former President received, on the night of the speech and afterward, suggests an important shift in the attitude of the American public. The last four years have been tough, and the election year opened with a dismally high unemployment rate of eight percent, a sluggish housing market, and a stagnant economy. And, so far, both major parties have offered up in response only hyperbolae, inspirational narratives, and vague promises. What Clinton’s policy heavy speech proved is that this is no longer enough. The people need their future president to talk about the issues with more fact and less flair. They need to hear, in detail, why the candidate deserves four years in the White House. With the candidates chosen, and the battle lines drawn, the American voter will be watching closely to see which candidate can convince them, not with words, but with numbers, not with posturing but with fact, not with souring rhetorical but with sober calculation.
And they will elect whoever can deliver the goods.