The Conservative Clinton Conundrum

If you paid attention to the political commentary leading up to Bill Clinton's speech last night at the Democratic National Convention, you might have noticed an odd phenomenon: Republicans and conservatives wistfully pining for the Clinton years. Why, 14 years after enthusiastically cheering on his impeachment, did conservatives suddenly warm to the 42nd president? Because they saw an opportunity to attack President Obama by unfavorably comparing his record to Clinton's. But now that Clinton's "rousing" endorsement of the president is on the books, the same conservatives who were singing Clinton's praises have reverted to type.

Case in point: Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin. Yesterday afternoon, Rubin wrote a post positing “the danger” for Obama in having Clinton speak on his behalf at the convention. Among those “dangers,” according to Rubin, was that Obama doesn't share Clinton's authenticity and record of accomplishment:

On a personal level, Clinton was a deal-maker, a compromiser, a welfare reform signer, a budget balancer and never, ever remote or haughty. To the contrary, he perfected the affectation that he was one of us. Clinton is the un-Obama, the guy who worked with a Republican Congress and didn't alienate or demonize business. The Republicans are going to be in hog heaven splicing Clinton's language and accomplishments together with Obama's language and record.

Put differently, Hillary couldn't deify Bill like Michelle did for her husband, but neither can Michelle honestly brag about her husband's accomplishments the way Hillary could for Bill (I mean if she weren't in China, far, far away.)

And finally, Clinton is, alas, the past. Here is some scary math (if you are middle aged). A 25 year-old voter today was born in 1987.What he does recall of the Clinton years is probably the impeachment and Monica Lewinsky years. I hate to say it (because we're not so far behind), but Clinton is old and his history is now three presidential terms away. Nostalgia is not “Forward,” not a reason to sign up for four more years of a failing president. You can agree with Clinton's message and also recognize Obama isn't the president who is capable of restoring the middle class, bringing down unemployment, etc.

Deal-maker, compromiser, “one of us” -- high praise indeed!

Then Clinton gave his speech. And Rubin had a change of heart.

In her post-speech post (headlined: “Bill Clinton's long, long speech about the meanie Republicans”), the praise for the authentic communicator with a tangible record of accomplishment evaporated. Instead, Rubin laid into Clinton as a hyper-partisan braggart and fraud who failed to connect with the audience:

Clinton's Medicare spiel was downright disingenuous, claiming that Obama's $716 billion in Medicare cuts don't affect benefits. But of course, payments to providers will be cut, making treatment less accessible, and a quarter of Medicare Advantage patients will be dropped from the program.

And his welfare explanation was, bluntly, incoherent. He claimed that governors wanted waivers to have recipients work more. When he said, “Did I make myself clear?” honest listeners would surely have said, “No!”

Mostly, however, Clinton did what he always does: Get lost in the weeds of policies, mixing in facts with half-truths and downright goofy arguments. (Romney's desire to restore Medicare cuts, he claimed, is giving money back to insurance companies. Umm. Actually it amounts to paying for services seniors want. Has the Democratic Party been defending insurance companies all these years?)

After listening to him march through endless policy details, the crowd in Charlotte seemed to tire, and as he continued well past 11 p.m., the TV audience certainly may have drifted off. The speech went on and on and on, likely sending all but the fawning media off to bed. Clinton, let it never be said, is a disciplined speaker.

Clinton certainly drubbed Republicans, and then -- this is Clinton, of course -- he bragged about his own deficit-balancing record. It was a pointed reminder that Obama simply isn't Bill Clinton.

Toward the end of the speech, Clinton blew the race card whistle loudly, claiming voter ID laws (which have been blessed by the Supreme Court and in case after case have failed to produce a single minority voter who could not obtain an ID) intend to depress minority voting. This was Clinton the charlatan and the hyper-partisan. Given how popular voter ID laws are with voters at large, you understand how entirely dependent Obama is in this election on non-white voters.

Thus ended the short-lived conservative love affair with Bill Clinton. And all it took was Bill Clinton reminding them that he is, in fact, Bill Clinton.