Having President Bill Clinton speak at the Democratic convention may fire up the base, but the decision to put the former president front-and-center also carries some risks.
Clinton has only become more popular since leaving office and has given Democrats a success story to point to in their recent political history. By comparison, President George W. Bush has been laying low away from the national political scene and still carries baggage from his eight-year tenure. Both Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, have said they will not attend the Republican convention at all.
One of the risks, of course, of continuously drawing a distinction between Clinton and Bush is the nearly four years that have passed since Obama was elected. The campaign must be careful to make sure that Clinton worship does not get in the way of clearly communicating Obama’s successes. And though the current president is tough to outshine, particularly in large speech settings, Clinton has continued to be an inspiring speaker in his years out of office and has never been one to shy away from the spotlight.
Clinton has at times had an awkward relationship with the president, given the long and intense primary campaign last cycle in which Obama defeated his wife, current Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In one bizarre media event in the Brady Press Room in December 2010, Bill Clinton and Obama gave a joint press conference on the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts and the economy. Obama left Clinton to hold court with reporters for six additional minutes.
The other risk is that by focusing on the past, Democrats won’t focus enough on some of their future stars.
The selection of San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro to deliver the keynote address at the convention has been widely praised by Beltway insiders as savvy, but the party will need to blend narratives between past and future.
“Well, I think there will also be voices for those who are the rise, but I think that President Clinton’s history and what Democrats achieved in that time, which was the first balanced budget in a generation, record surpluses, low unemployment and the greatest peace-time economy in over a generation is a good reminder of the difference between those Democratic years and the following Republican years and the policies that Republicans today take,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Even Democrats in the nation’s toughest races who have made the political calculation to ditch the convention had nothing but praise for Clinton’s role in articulating the party’s vision and platform.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), a campaign co-chairman for Obama in 2008, will not be at this year’s convention but said she is glad Clinton will be.
“I think it’s great that President Clinton is helping,” McCaskill said. “You remember the Republicans all voted against Clinton’s economic plan, which included higher taxes for the wealthiest people in this country, and we had an incredible job boom. So I think him reminding America that their recipe for taking care of Big Oil and the mega-wealthy in this country does not create jobs.”