The gap between what he said and where he was—physically and politically—was a chasm.
Bill Clinton’s message to the country on Tuesday night was of a piece with his ability to frame a political argument in clear simple language.
“If you want a president who defines the job as spending hours a day watching TV and zapping people on social media, he’s your man,” Clinton said of Donald Trump. “The Oval Office should be a command center. Instead, it’s a storm center. There’s only chaos. Just one thing never changes—his determination to deny responsibility and shift the blame. The buck never stops there.”
But the setting was all wrong. Clinton in a quiet room, without a crowd delighting in his presence, tormenting the teleprompter technician and the convention managers, like a jazz musician riffing off a tune with endless variations on a theme? OK, blame the pandemic for that.
But Clinton speaking for only five minutes—and well before the broadcast networks turned on their cameras? How much more of a message could the convention have delivered to the first Democrat since FDR to win two terms, to the candidate who smashed the Republican party’s “electoral lock” on the White House by redefining what his party stood for?
Some of the explanation is flatly personal. In the #MeToo age, the excuses for Clinton’s transgressions ring hollow. If Harvey Weinstein is in prison for deeds committed decades ago, then what’s the statute of limitations for Clinton; if “believe all women” is the standard, then do we not believe Paula Jones’s and Juanita Broaddrick’s stories about predatory sexual behavior? (This is not a uniform outlook among Democrats; just after Clinton admitted to lying to his supporters about Monica Lewinsky in 1998, one of his top aides told me: “I’ll never go on TV to defend Clinton again.” He’s spent much of the last two decades doing precisely that.)
And there’s a broader explanation, one that involves a party that believes that the very arguments Bill Clinton made in his successful pursuit of the White House are now to be consigned to the dustbin of history.
Clinton campaigned in 1992 as a “different kind of Democrat,” openly challenging the “brain-dead politics” of his party. America, he argued, trusted us Democrats with neither their safety nor their money. He campaigned often with law-enforcement officials; back then, the “blue wall” referred not to the states that always voted Democratic but to the uniformed police officers behind him. As president, he supported an expanded use of the federal death penalty. Today, Democrats—including Hillary Clinton—have been apologizing for mass incarceration, and their convention includes families of black men and women killed by the police.
Clinton famously told the country in a State of the Union that the “the era of big government is over,” and helped push through a federal law that did indeed “end welfare as we know it.” His administration’s economic gurus enthusiastically embraced deregulation and the widespread use of “creative” financial instruments like derivatives that helped crash the economy a decade or so later. Today, the hunger to bring Wall Street and the financial masters of the universe to heel is a staple of the Democratic party. The health care plan designed by Hillary Clinton— a design of Rube Goldberg complexity—crashed and burned and helped cost the Democrats the Congress in 1994. In retrospect, the party would have preferred Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s idea to cut the Gordian knot—just take out “over 65” from the Medicare law.
For all of this, there remains a picture of Bill Clinton as a uniquely gifted political figure, one whose blend of cognitive smarts and street smarts is unequaled. (Some years after he left the White House, I ran into him at a restaurant in Atlanta; he looked around the room and gave detailed biographical accounts of virtually every diner.) He had the intellectual skills to navigate insanely complex issues like the Mexican peso crisis, for which he got no credit at all.
And he had the political skills to survive scandals that would have crippled any other political figure. In 2000, his behavior was the principal reason why Al Gore and George W. Bush battled to a tie in a time of peace and prosperity. Had Clinton resigned in 1998, it’s more than plausible that a President Al Gore would have comfortably won the 2000 election. It’s also plausible that, had Clinton been eligible for a third term, he would have won, just as he survived the draft-dodging and Gennifer Flowers stories of 1992. (As columnist Mark Shields put it at the time, “If Bill Clinton drove a convertible with the top down through a car wash, Al Gore would get wet.”) And as late as 2016, Bill Clinton’s conduct was a powerful reason why Donald Trump was able to survive his own far worse transgressions.
Still, it was hard to watch Clinton Tuesday night, the eve of his 74th birthday, without remembering how compelling his sheer presence was in our political life; how the blend of his talents, his ambition, and his survival skills took his party out of the wilderness; and what our political history would have been like had his character matched his talents.