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Just as it was for the Republicans, Day Two of the Democratic Party’s convention was a serious work day, one in which speaker after speaker went about making the case for the party, stomping out brushfires, and rebutting the opposition’s lines of assault. All day and far into the night, they rose to rip into the G.O.P. and defend President Obama. The biggest gun, of course, was the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who was very hoarse and typically apt to ramble, but who nonetheless gave a masterful speech that got better as it went along.
Speaking deliberately, blithely exerting his executive privilege to ignore the 11 p.m. prime-time deadline, Clinton made his points with grace, humor, and even a hint of poetry. His evisceration of the Republicans was pitch-perfect, furthering the Democratic meme that the contemporary G.O.P. is a party of radical obstructionists who have abandoned their own best traditions, and nailing their Big Thinker, vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, as no more than a mischievous choirboy scamp, unable to keep himself from telling a lie whenever he opens his mouth.
Clinton deftly turned his address into a homily, amiably waving a long forefinger at his audience, repeatedly pausing to make sure he had our attention: “Now, I want you to pay attention to this . . .” or, “Now, I want you to understand this, it’s important . . .” Like a veteran preacher, he carried the crowd along with him through even a welter of statistics, sparking a calling out of responses in the black church tradition from some of the delegates—“Uh-huh.” “Tell ’em, tell ’em, Bill!”
He hit the Republicans with facts and figures that should have been Democratic talking points a long time ago, celebrating his party’s legacy as the true job creators of the past century, claiming that while Republicans have held the White House for twenty-eight years since 1960 to the Democrats’ twenty-four—“What’s the [private sector] jobs score? Republicans 24 million, Democrats 42 million!”
He adroitly used humor, claiming, “In Tampa, the Republican argument against the President’s re-election was pretty simple: We left him a total mess, he hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in.” He even slipped in a bit of poetry, ad-libbing the word “fleeting,” in his assertion that “Nobody’s right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day. All of us are destined to live our fleeting lives between those two extremes.”
This wonderfully vivid analogy capped what was far and away the most generous praise of the opposition that I have ever heard at a political convention, one in which Clinton lauded previous Republican presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower (for sending “federal troops to my home state to integrate Little Rock Central High and [building] the interstate highway system”), Ronald Reagan (for working with Clinton on “welfare reform”), George H. W. Bush (for working with him on “national education goals”), and even George W. Bush (for “saving the lives of millions of people in poor countries” through his famine- and disease-relief programs in Africa). He even stole Reagan’s famous “There you go again” line in swatting away various Republican charges.
A Democratic politician able to quote Reagan and praise George W. Bush for saving lives is one confident hombre. And Clinton carried the crowd with him through all of it, provoking not a single “boo” with these encomia. What’s more, in what must have been a rare and gut-wrenching exercise in self-restraint, he refrained from making his speech about himself, limiting his lobbying for a Nobel to a brief mention of his post-presidential public service. He praised President Obama to the skies, admitting that Obama had inherited a much worse mess than Clinton himself had back in 1993.
It was an address delivered with all of those elements so badly lacking in the party across the aisle, which is to say generosity, objectivity, irony, logic, and humor delivered without a sneer and a thinly veiled threat. It was the speech of a statesman. What Clinton did, though, more than anything he said, was what sealed the deal, bringing the crowd to a final, foot-stamping, cheering, raving, standing ovation.
That was a simple hug—or rather the easy, unabashed bear hug in which he wrapped up the president when Obama made a surprise visit to the stage at the end of Clinton’s speech. This was political theater at its best on the part of both men, reminding the faithful—reminding so many of all of us of a certain age—why we remain Democratic voters. The Democrats, just like the Republicans, are worm-eaten with their own chiselers and cheats, their influence peddlers and grifters. But unlike the Republicans down in Tampa, they are not the party that still, in 2012, cannot stand to have a speaker say who was right and who was wrong in the Civil War.
What we saw on the stage last night was a white man from rural Arkansas rapturously embracing a black man with an African father and a white mother, while as mixed an audience as you will find anywhere in America cheered. This is why so many of us will never vote for the opposition, which will not and cannot move past its legacy of racism and hatred.
All that said, there were some lurking shadows last night in Charlotte. I was struck by how passionately and skillfully many Democrats and their supporters spoke on behalf of party leaders who have betrayed them time and time again, and who are probably planning to do so again. Chief among them was Elizabeth Warren, who is running in Massachusetts for the U.S. Senate. Warren should have had a major cabinet or financial regulatory post but was instead given a backhand by a president who continues to be mysteriously enthralled by the Three Bozos of the Economic Apocalypse: Timothy Geithner, Robert Rubin, and Larry Summers.
Cast out into elective politics, where she has little instinctive skill and will likely lose to a slick demagogue in a state that has great difficulty electing women, Warren nonetheless gamely did her party duty. The crowd greeted her with the biggest ovation of the convention thus far, save for Clinton and Michelle Obama, and as she owes absolutely nothing to this least grateful of presidents, it must have been tempting for her to make her speech about herself. But she did not, repeatedly turning a superb address—in which she spoke of her working-class roots and her Methodist Sunday-school teaching, quoted scripture, and defended the liberal tradition (“We turned adversity into progress because that’s what we do”)—to the cause of Obama, never hinting at how he and his male pals had kneecapped her.
Similarly, Sandra Fluke, she of Rush Limbaugh “slut” fame, delivered a speech with surprising grace and poise for an amateur, once again making the case for Obama—he “thought of his daughters, not his delegates or his donors”—before sashaying defiantly off the stage. There were assembly-line workers and clerks fired in Bain Capital’s chop-shop buyouts, as well as Richard Trumka, president of the beleaguered AFL–CIO, making the case for re-electing the president despite having seen Obama’s administration outright ignore labor’s most-cherished goals.
The accepted trope about Democrats among the mainstream media continues to be about how fractious and disorganized they are. But for at least a generation, ever since the late Ted Kennedy’s rebellion against Jimmy Carter in 1980, Democrats have been a model of discipline and decorum, falling in obediently behind their candidates, and remaining there through any number of cruel and disastrous betrayals.
And here we are again, with the Democratic faithful falling loyally into line. Well, what else are they to do? Having failed once again to penetrate the psyches of a party leadership bent mostly on flattering itself through its associations with the rich and the powerful, they—and we—have little choice. But there will come a time, probably quite soon, when we will all once again have to pay the price for the pretty words and pretty pictures coming out of a Democratic convention.
As another great Southern wordsmith famously put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
More from Kevin Baker:
Appreciation — June 26, 2014, 8:00 am
From Johnny Cash to “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”
New York Revisited — June 19, 2014, 8:00 am
And how it foretold the 2008 financial crisis
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