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At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton gave a speech that went about 20 minutes over time. It was a very good speech, and it was shockingly detailed, as late-night convention speeches go.
For example, Clinton’s 2012 speech had a compelling section arguing that GOP nominee Mitt Romney had bad ideas about how to divide state and federal responsibilities for funding Medicaid, ideas that would hurt millions of voters who probably don’t usually spend much time thinking about how Medicaid is paid for. This isn’t exactly scintillating stuff, but Clinton sold it as not just interesting but important.
Clinton is one of the most talented political speakers of our time, but what especially sets him apart is his ability to talk about complex, arcane policy topics without boring the audience. His speeches can be soaring and technical at the same time.
In his address to the Democratic convention on Tuesday night, Clinton set out two tasks for himself: humanize his wife, a candidate with poor personal favorability ratings who is often discussed as though she were not a person with feelings; and ground her ideology, making the case that she is a committed progressive who has devoted her life to making the sorts of policy changes people on the left care about, all while working successfully with Republicans.
He managed this combination through a tour of the career he and Hillary built together, one that was heavy on arcane policy content. It was a clever combination: The message of the speech was essentially that Hillary channels her humanity into her policy work – that we can understand her soul by examining the laws she helped shape.
Bill talked about Hillary’s early work as a lawyer, suing to strip whites-only private schools of their tax exemptions in the interest of promoting integration.
He described the variety of boards and commissions she served on during his administrations, crafting policy changes on topics from K-12 school funding in Arkansas to children’s health insurance, which he argued improved the quality of education in Arkansas and extended health insurance to millions of children nationwide.
And he talked about her own record in the Senate and as secretary of state, crafting international agreements including the New Start nuclear treaty with Russia.
This content sounds boring, a fact Bill acknowledged in his speech, and in the hands of most speakers it would be. But I think Bill pulled it off, making the case that Hillary’s often unglamorous work in the trenches of government made her a “change maker,” as signs in the hands of delegates declared. And he managed to include numerous examples of bipartisan cooperation to boot.
In 2012, I wrote that Bill Clinton was able to mount a far more convincing defense of Barack Obama’s governing record than Obama himself seemed to be able to muster. In this campaign, Hillary Clinton has struggled to make the case that voters should be excited about her presidency rather than simply preferring it over the other unappealing options.
We will see on Thursday whether she can make as strong a case for herself as Bill did.