The Democratic Convention: The Big Dawg Still Can Howl

Robert Borosage

“In the spring of 1971, I met a girl…” Thus began Bill Clinton’s charming, personal portrait of Hillary Rodham Clinton, and a speech that showed a master at the top of his skills.

There were no particularly memorable lines, but a compelling story. All his signature gestures – the pointed finger, the bitten lip, the cocked head, the flirtatious smile – were on display. He talked intimately to the millions watching on TV, rather than declaiming to the thousands in the hall. The speech went too long, the story was airbrushed, the Big Dawg often seems frail now, but anyone who loves politics had to enjoy an artist still at the top of his craft.

Clinton’s job was not simply to reintroduce someone who has been before Americans for over a quarter of a century, it was to make the case that she “is the best darn change maker I have ever known.” He did that with vignettes of causes that Hillary supported, projects that she worked on over a long life. He recaptured the bright promise that accompanied the Clintons when they emerged from Arkansas onto the national scene over 25 years ago. From this, he sought to make her the “change maker” that Americans are looking for:

“People say, ‘well we need to change. She’s been around a long time.’ She sure has, and she’s sure been worth every single year she’s put into making people’s live better.”

The speech focused on the personal and largely omitted the political. “She voted for and against proposed trade deals,” he said in passing. It wasn’t substance but temperament that he touted: “This woman always wants to move the ball forward. That is just who she is.”

The country and the party have been transformed since Clinton was president. Democrats no longer are in a defensive crouch on social liberalism. No Democrat would pay tribute to conservatives as Clinton did when he announced that “the era of big government is over.” The Democratic Party platform – reflecting a debate driven by progressive movements and the Bernie Sanders campaign – repudiates large parts of Clinton’s legacy: the corporate globalization strategy, the fiscal austerity, Wall Street deregulation, mass incarceration and the death penalty and more.

Not surprisingly, Hillary Clinton did not lead these transformations. The new Democratic coalition was forged by President Obama. The new agenda was framed by political movements and progressives. Hillary Clinton has adjusted to the new reality, sometimes with agility, sometimes awkwardly.

This was illustrated earlier in the day when Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, former fundraiser and close personal friend of the Clintons, noted that Hillary Clinton wasn’t really opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty, that she’d change a comma or two and resubmit it when elected. This, of course, is exactly what most opponents of the treaty – the vast bulk of the Democratic activist base – fear. McAuliffe revived memories of the slippery triangulations that led hundreds of Sanders delegates to leave the floor when Sanders moved to nominate Clinton by acclimation.

The campaign moved rapidly to clean up the mess. Campaign chair John Podesta tweeted immediately: “Hillary opposes TPP BEFORE and AFTER the election. Period. Full stop.” He announced that both she and her vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine had opposed it before the election campaign and would oppose it afterwards. This rewrote the record, but at least in the right direction.

Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state, provided the other sobering moment of the night. She began her speech with Harry Truman and the Cold War and ended it with Vladimir Putin as if nothing had changed: “I know what happens when you give Russians a free hand.” Foreign policy has been largely absent from the convention. Albright reminded us how antiquated and dangerous the Democratic foreign policy establishment’s thinking is. And how both the “indispensable nation” liberal interventionist crowd and the neo-cons favor ratcheting up tensions with both Russia and China, while lobbying for escalation in the unending Middle East conflicts. Bill Clinton sensibly knew better than to descend into that morass.

Democrats – and all who understand the importance of defeating Donald Trump and repudiating his politics of hate – have to be pleased with the convention to date. Sanders made it clear that his political revolution will continue, but that its first task is beating Trump. Bill Clinton masterfully painted a human portrait of Hillary. The viewing audience has exceeded that of the Republican convention, with President Obama and the nominee yet to come. The Democratic show has made Trump and Republicans look like amateur hour. Clinton will surely surge out of the convention with a growing lead – and then the real campaign, which already feels interminable, will start after Labor Day.

Get updates in your inbox