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Big Dog Bites Little Man

Well, I sure was wrong. Bill Clinton did surprise me. He gave the best speech he’s given in twenty years – literally; the last time he was quite this good was his 1992 acceptance speech.

Yes, Clinton lit into the Republicans with relish, as I expected him to. (How could he not, when they presented such a juicy target?) But the heart of the speech wasn’t a negative one. What Clinton did is what Clinton does so well: he made the small big. He made a substantive, positive case for Barack Obama’s reelection not on the basis of a big-picture policy contrast – which is what I prefer – but on the basis of a myriad policy threads woven into a single partisan garment. He unpacked the stimulus bill, and the ACA, and sold each little nugget of benefit in them.

That’s not wonkishness. It’s salesmanship. Or, rather, it’s wonkishness as salesmanship – not “my plan bends the cost curve, which is the only way, in the long term, to make good on the promises we’ve made to our seniors” but “this plan gets you eight more years of Medicare absolutely free!

Scott Galupo is right about another thing I got wrong: Clinton wasn’t just talking to fence-sitting whites (though I noted the emphasis on how Medicaid benefits middle-class seniors because Medicare doesn’t cover nursing home care – and much more than Medicare, this really is an election about the viability of Medicaid).

And what I’m most impressed by is that Clinton really did seem like the elder statesman of the party. He’s replaced Ted Kennedy. This speech was “about him” only in the sense that you could never forget who was giving the speech. Clinton himself never became a distraction.

The speech wasn’t much about Barack Obama either, of course. It was about the Democratic Party. Which was both refreshing and kind of fitting; President Obama, after all, let the legislature play a big role in his two biggest domestic accomplishments – the stimulus and the ACA. (Does that explain why he’s never been very invested in selling the details of those bills, so much as he has in the “big picture” questions that engage him more?)

Just about the only point I stand by is my last one. Nobody can close this sale for Obama – not his wife, not the former President. I’m eager to see how much game he has tonight.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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