Political Animal


September 03, 2012 11:53 AM The Big Dog’s Big Opportunity

By Ed Kilgore

With former president Bill Clinton now officially slated to place Barack Obama’s name in nomination Wednesday night, the question now is how the 42d president will utilize this opportunity.

Until quite recently, the obvious role for Clinton was to rebut the idea that Obama’s policies—particularly his tax policies—were somehow antithetical to economic growth incompatible with a thriving private sector, or responsible for the nation’s fiscal problems. That remains an important task, and one that Clinton should respond to very personally, since he, too, had to battle the argument that very slightly higher top-level income tax rates would create an economic calamity, or more generally, that political leaders had to bend to the maximum demands of “job creators,” who would spitefully plunge the nation into a downward spiral if forced to support public investments or tolerate regulation.

But as I’ve argued earlier, Clinton has an even more urgent opportunity and obligation in Charlotte: to demolish, as no one else can, the mendacious claim that Obama is unraveling successful and popular Clinton policies, most notably the 1996 welfare reform legislation. Most of the Romney/Ryan ads playing on this racially heavy-handed theme feature Clinton’s image, supporting a much longer series of assertions by the GOP candidate and his campaign that Obama is a radical old-school social democrat who is determined to unravel Clinton’s “centrist reforms” of his party and of the public sector.

This line of attack on Obama isn’t simply designed to “drive up negatives” for the incumbent, but also, by implication, to depict Romney as a relatively safe alternative who is at least as likely as Obama to hew to some moderate course of action in the immediate future. In other words, it’s at the very heart of the entire GOP general-election strategy.

Clinton could tear that heart right out and stomp on it. On the welfare attack, he is uniquely qualified to look right into the camera and call out Romney and Ryan for a bold-face lie, and also make it clear it is the GOP agenda, which would systematically erode federal and state “make-work-pay” supports for the working poor—including Medicaid (and ObamaCare!), the EITC, food stamps and training programs—that threatens the legacy of the 1996 law. This would not be an act of political charity for Obama; Clinton had to bludgeon Republicans into a version of welfare reform that gave private-sector job placement some priority over the hammer-headed conservative goals of reducing public assistance unilaterally or dumping the whole problem on the states. I can’t imagine he’d stand by as revisionists try to pretend simple viciousness or evasion of responsibility was the whole idea.

More generally, of course, Clinton is in an unusually credible position to challenge the overriding GOP narrative that the country was in fine shape until Barack Obama became president. An never-ending cascade of budget deficits, public and private borrowing, reduced income security, wealth inequality, deregulation, and international instability, were the deliberate and predictable consequences of GOP policies under George W. Bush, culminating in the 2008 disaster. To the extent Republicans are determined to make this election a “referendum” on past policies and their results, it’s very important to expand the windows of memory to the last two decades, not just the last four years. The GOP is seeking to make the mess it largely created and helped exacerbate by obstruction a rationale for a radically intensified version of the same policies. This would sweep away Clinton’s own legacy almost entirely, as I am sure he realizes. So the time is ripe for a speech that will if nothing else set the record straight and raise the stakes for an election in which turnout could be crucial and the willingness of a small slice of the electorate to fall for lies and evasions could be fatal.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on September 03, 2012 12:13 PM:

    Maybe "The Big Dawg" should bring out a chair, ala "The Man With No Name," and talk about how the policies of "The President With No Name" (at the Republican Convention, anyway) are what drove this country into a ditch, and that "The Invisible Man" wants to double-down on those same policies, if he's put in charge of this country.

    Can't you just see the seething rage in Conservatives, if Big Bill brought out an empty chair and talked to it.

    Not to mock Clint Eastwood - but a 'more in sorrow than in anger" kind of a deal.

    And then address Congressional Republicans with, "It's the economy - STUPIDS!!!"

  • dede21206 on September 03, 2012 12:20 PM:

    I hope President Clinton calls the GOP out for the liars they are. And I hope he doesn't sugarcoat it. And I also hope he calls them out loud and clear for all of their obstruction since 1/20/09.

  • stormskies on September 03, 2012 12:21 PM:

    I just hope Clinton uses the word LIE over and over and over ...

    It was fucking bizarre yesterday with Bob Scheiffer on his Meet the Nation show pretending to be shocked that anyone would accuse Romney/Ryan of lying ... what a pathetic spectacle that was ...

  • Diane Rodriguez on September 03, 2012 12:24 PM:

    Clinton could help Obama immensely, however I'm not sure his ego will allow it. I don't think he'll do any damage but it remains to be seen how far he will go for Obama.

    Clinton is going to have to feel a lot of love from Obama before he turns on the charm completely. But then, trusting Clinton has never come easy to me and he is a very complex individual.

  • Ronald on September 03, 2012 12:26 PM:

    That will be a speech worth watching. That's all I gotta say on that. Clinton was a great speaker, and now he's got solid credibility behind him.
    Oh goodness this is gonna be good.
    And with the Republicans trying the ol' 'Are you better off' line (which we all know is a fail), this is going to be a spectacular show.

  • Ronald on September 03, 2012 12:28 PM:

    @Diane- Clinton would do it if nothing else but to retain his own legacy, and/or to help set up Hillary in '16.

  • Joe Friday on September 03, 2012 12:41 PM:

    "More generally, of course, Clinton is in an unusually credible position to challenge the overriding GOP narrative that the country was in fine shape until Barack Obama became president."

    Speaking of which, what the hell was with David Plouffe on MEET THE PRESS and Rahm Emanuel on THIS WEEK NOT being able to say the country is better off than it was four years ago ?

    Real simple. Whenever anyone asks that question, you ask:

    Is what we have now better than NEGATIVE NINE PRECENT GDP and the LOSS OF 850,000 JOBS A MONTH ?

    WTF ?

  • biggerbox on September 03, 2012 12:43 PM:

    And while he's at it, I personally wouldn't mind something along the lines of "And y'know, when I left office, after a Democratic administration, I handed the next guy billions of dollars in surpluses. But when the next guy left office, he handed Barack so much debt that we're still working to pay it off."

  • T2 on September 03, 2012 12:55 PM:

    I hope he doesn't do a Christie and spend the time talking about himself instead of Obama.

  • esaud on September 03, 2012 1:24 PM:

    I hope Elizabeth Warren will do well on Tuesday. These are the kind of themes she is really good at.

    BTW, in today's Boston Herald online, Scott Brown is listed as a columnist this week, and he will be writing about the DNC convention on "common ground" that he sees. He is running a really bizarre campaign, and I hope it backfires on him. Time will tell.

    And does anyone know what will happen if Paul Ryan wins both the VP and state rep seat? The other combos of win/loose are self explanitory, but if he wins both then the Wisconsin rules for filling an empty seat presumably will be followed.

  • N.Wells on September 03, 2012 1:36 PM:

    Romney humanized himself a bit, but offered no specifics at all, so he may have lowered his negatives a bit, but seems unlikely to have attracted new supporters by offering interesting new ideas or directions. Ryan cemented his reputation as a liar, to the extent that I think his difficulties with the truth will color his press coverage through the rest of the campaign, to his detriment.

    R's are close enough that a disaster, a terrorist event, an economic shock, or massive negative advertising could start shifting a lot of swing-state polls into Romney's favor, putting winds at his back and generating a bandwagon in his favor. However, he's Romney, and he's got the Republican party hanging round his neck, so increased campaigning is unlikely to help him much. Negative advertising might even be much less helpful than usual - we've already had so much that I suspect people are tuning it out already.

    The Dems have a golden opportunity to fire up their base at the convention: our politicians and our ideals are pretty impressive, unlike Republicans, so it should be possible to bring a bunch of independents and apathetic voters back into the fold. I think a major task of the convention is to hang Republicans with their opposition to everything, including their own ideas, and to make the case for rejecting all Republicans for all offices on the basis of their party having become extremist, deluded, and dangerous to democracy.

    Failing a good convention bounce for the Democrats, Obama has a backstop in the debates, which will be fascinating. The lies and misrepresentations that Romney gets away with while campaigning will not work at all with Obama actually there on stage to refute them ('That's not me, Mitt, you're just attacking an imaginary empty chair. Here's my position....'). Moreover, Mitt's flip-flopping will make him look completely foolish assuming Obama simply keeps quoting Mitt's different positions and keeps asking something along the lines of, "Which version of the Etch-A-Sketch are you going with, Mitt?"

  • zandru on September 03, 2012 1:51 PM:

    One of the correspondents at Talking Points Memo observed that it isn't enough for Democrats to debunk Republican lies - the Dems need to point out the desperation and lack of policy alternatives that drive these lies in the first place.

    * Why are the Repubs suddenly "defending" Medicare? Don't they want you to notice that their Medicare program would have every oldster out on the street, trying to buy an individual policy for herself on the higher-priced, lower-benefit non-group market? And with all their pre-existings, yet!

    * Why do they say the 2009 stimulus program "didn't work"? Don't they want to take credit for nearly quashing the agreement altogether, and diminishing its impact so much that no reputable economist judged it to be adequate? And then scrambling like hogs at the trough for the money that was appropriated? AND taking sole credit for it back in the home districts, while they were at it.

    * Why does Ryan say the President "rejected" the Simpson-Bowles committee's report and recommendations - when it was Ryan, as a member of that committee, who voted to ensure there WAS no "Simpson-Bowles report" which had the consensus approval of its members?

    And on it goes. Point out the self-serving - or projectionist - nature of the Republicans' lies. What's wrong with them? is the question every American ought to start asking. And, Sure, I like these guys' philosophy and character - but if they lie like this all the time...???

  • martin on September 03, 2012 2:06 PM:

    Clinton should come out with one of those W billboards that say "Miss Me Yet" Say "nope" and then explain why.

  • SadOldVet on September 03, 2012 2:10 PM:

    It's a topsy turvy upsidedown world, when us old progressives do not, never have, nor never will believe that Billy Bob Clinton is a 'centrist' and the repukes are worshipping at his 'centrist' shrine.

    Did not Billy Bob & Harold Ford start the DLC? Was not the Clinton & DLC/DINO objective to win political contests with disregard for doing what was 'right' for the country? Were not the Clinton & DLC/DINO/Repuke-Lite's goals to be a part and parcel of the corporately owned political establishment? Is not Billy Bob now 'BBF' with Bush Senior?

    Put down this worship of Billy Bob Clinton and accept that Billy Bob will do what is 'best' for the Clintons, especially if he wants Billary to be elected president in 2016. Just hope that it works to Obama's best interests.

    No more Clintons! No more Bushes!

  • Elie on September 03, 2012 2:13 PM:

    If I am team "O" -- I have a backup plan in case "The Big Dog" goes rogue in some way. He cannot be completely trusted.

    I would also prepare to hear the Republicans accuse any policy positions as being "lies". It benefits the Republicans to keep the waters mudied and for the truth to be an unsure thing. They are the most vile people ever, so nothing is beyond them

    I also strongly believe, that even though Team O should in part attack, that I hope we have again, the soaring rhetoric to help our spirits some.. this has been a brutal and bruising campaign and we need more than another attack plan...

    I pray hard every night and wake up with a prayer that the American people have not so lost their way that we can manage to save our country....

  • cwolf on September 03, 2012 2:15 PM:

    Unlike the RNC lightweight candidate-introducer Rubio,
    the Dawg is a great speaker.
    Obama coming on stage to speak after Clinton,
    is an act of true courage.

  • JM917 on September 03, 2012 2:52 PM:

    Let us hope that when the Big Dawg uses the forthright word LIE in calling out R&R and their propagandists, the inevitable noise about certin fibs that the Big Dawg advanced during his own presidency doesn't drown out the truth that has to be told.

  • Kathryn on September 03, 2012 3:22 PM:

    Like several other commenters, I am not totally confident about Bill Clinton's coming speech. He was extremely restrained IMO about the welfare ad lie, though the current ad running in Va. featurning Clinton is excellent. His former campaign manager James Carville recently stated that a Romney presidency would consist of the George W. Bush economy, Dick Cheney foreign policy and Rick Santorum social policies, which is not only true but should scare the crap out of anyone watching should Clinton say similar. Predict Clinton will not use the word lie.

    Like Joe Friday, speechless that Plouffe and Axelrod hesitated and equivocated on the are you better off question, sometimes these guys think too much, which is worse, getting crap for saying yes or giving up a video of both of them looking like deer in the headlights unable to answer?

  • TR on September 03, 2012 6:32 PM:

    Clinton's speech should have some variation on this:

    "For a long time now, the Republicans have been binging on wild-eyed economic policies of tax cuts for the rich, deregulations for corporations, and slashing government aid for the rest of us. In 2008, while they were drunk on these policies, they drove the national economy off the road and into a ditch. Barack Obama got the keys away from them, got the car fixed up, and now we're back on the road and heading in the right direction.

    "Why anyone would think we should give the keys back to the Republicans is beyond me. You don't give a drunk his keys back and put him behind the wheel, especially if he's still chugging from the same bottle!"

  • Doug on September 03, 2012 7:38 PM:

    I think Ronald @ 12:28 PM has it right. Mr. Clinton needs President Obama to be re-elected more than President Obama needs Mr. Clinton to campaign for that re-election. Currently, SoS Clinton is on record as NOT intending to again run for public office. However there's still three years before that decision needs to be finalized and until that final determination IS made, one does NOT burn bridges.

    SOV, if you truly believe the "repukes" are worshipping at "(Clinton's)'centrist shrine", then you have allowed your sense of outrage over what you view as Mr. Clinton's "sins" to overwhelm your ability to think coherently.
    And that's a pity.

  • bluestatedon on September 04, 2012 1:13 AM:

    "us old progressives do not, never have, nor never will believe that Billy Bob Clinton is a 'centrist'"

    Speak for yourself. I know scores of "old progressives" who regard Clinton as centrist as they come. The fact that you evidently believe that he's some sort of reactionary fiend makes you a mirror image of the typical wingnut Republican ideologue.

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  • Hank Essay on September 04, 2012 8:09 PM:

    Most "old progressives" couldn't hold Bill Clinton's jockstrap when it comes to actually improving lives in America and around the world. He was a centrist who made some mistakes, sure...but jeez, but to not acknowledge what the man has done around the world, the billions and billions he has helped put into programs that serve the people that "old progressives" actually supposedly care about since his presidency alone is sheer utter stupidity....