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.
President Barack Obama’s campaign slogan might be “Forward,” but during next month’s national convention designed to fete his vision for the country, Democrats appear determined to look back.
The party, in a very public way, has chosen former President Bill Clinton to help guide them through the political space-time continuum by acting as both visionary and a physical reminder of the good old days when taxes were higher and government surpluses were a reality.
Last week, the Obama campaign leaked to the New York Times that Clinton will play a “leading role” in the party’s convention in Charlotte, N.C., the first big hint at the Democrats’ plan for one of the more defining weeks of the campaign.
And though Clinton’s appearance is not unusual — he also spoke at the 2008 convention — his prime-time role speaks to the success that Democrats, who often muddle their political messaging, have had sticking to an easy adage: We were awesome in the 1990s.
Sources say Clinton is the touchstone of a clear-cut refrain: The country was in the black, unemployment was low, and, most importantly, though the current unemployment rate has ticked down since Obama took office, it could be lower if the Democrats had their way and let the Bush-era tax cuts expire.
“What Bill Clinton can do here clearly is to make it clear that a lot of the economic policies President Obama is proposing are very similar to the economic agenda President Clinton pursued,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee and a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman.
Van Hollen pointed to the debates held in both the House and Senate before the August recess on whether to extend the expiring Bush-era tax cuts, renewed by Obama during the last Congress, to all Americans or to let the breaks for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans expire.
“Especially on the point that we’ve been discussing the last three days, which is that during the Clinton years, when we took a fiscally responsible approach, the economy boomed and then the Bush tax cuts did zero for the country, blew a big hole in the deficit and everybody else is going to have to pick up the tab,” Van Hollen said, as did other Democrats approached to discuss this story.
The Clinton adulation might present one of the greatest contrasts between the parties in their respective days-long appeals to voters.
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.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.