Friday, September 7, 2012

Clinton's DNC Speech

(Originally published at

Your correspondent must shamefully report his near-total inability to retain anything resembling objectivity or emotional distance or even snide irony whilst viewing Fmr. Pres. William Jefferson Clinton's oratory during his keynote speech last night at the 2012 DNC. The man is an artist, and our psyches are his canvas.  I mean, I went into his speech thinking, "Okay: former POTUS, neo-liberal par excellence, bald-faced liar, creature of the system. I'm gonna shred this guy." And then he started speaking, and all I could think about was how much I wanted him to be my professor.

Clinton's smart: extremely sharp on everything from arcane policy wonkage (see, e.g., his discussion of the finer points of the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare, which subject is, in terms of sheer esoteric inaccessibility, the political equivalent of quantum theory) to crowd-rousing rhetoric, his biggest asset is his ability to bridge these two arenas. Nobody can boil things down like WJC. Again and again, Clinton'd explain some really complex policy issue, like student loans or Medicare (and Paul Ryan's attacks on Pres. Obama re: the latter) in clear terms, and then rephrase his point in a single, memorable sentence. He also deployed several great catch-phrases, like "So what's the (job/debt/whatever) score? Democrats, (a lot); Republicans/Romney, zero." And: "We're all in this together."

His speech was laid out like this:

1. Puff-up Obama. My favorite line from this section was the unintentional innuendo, "A man who's cool on the outside, but who burns for America on the inside."

2a. Re-frame the Republican narrative, while outlining Democratic achievements. WJC ridiculed the self-determination rhetoric of the GOP with this gem: "Every politician wants every voter to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself." Here Clinton introduces one of the main themes of the speech, his appeal to common interest in contrast to the GOP's ruthless individualism. Later on he characterizes the GOP narrative re: Obama like this: "We (i.e. the Republicans) left him a total mess. He hasn't cleaned it up fast enough. So fire him and put us back in."

2b. Neo-liberal (i.e. soft capitalist) appeal to enlightened self-interest. "Poverty, discrimination and ignorance restrict growth." The ideological co-option of social justice for the sake of economic efficacy is at least as old as the anti-segregationalists, and Clinton uses it well. It's at the heart of the neo-liberal worldview: tearing down old-fashined caste differences and throwing everyone into the free market (of ideas, of money, of politics--whatever).

2c. Modern GOP fanaticism vs. classic Eisenhower. Clinton rather brilliantly spends time complimenting past leaders of the GOP. This allows him to 1-take the moral high ground, appearing to transcend petty partisanship, while 2-implicitly attacking the current GOP. This is, I think, a really effective rhetorical position: Clinton doesn't have to attack the Republicans per se, he just attacks the nuts who've taken over the party. Aside from seeming to be completely accurate, this position works because it resonates with public sentiment toward the GOP, and it underscores the Democrats' moderation in contrast to the current GOP's militancy. Remember that one of the very few things about which the American electorate is currently united is our frustration with gridlock in Washington DC. Clinton's message casts the Republicans as the cause of this gridlock and Obama as trying to resolve it. This is such an effective narrative: "What works in the real world is cooperation...Because nobody's right all the time, and broken clock is right twice a day." Especially in contrast to e.g. Chris Christie's unwieldy arrogance in his own keynote speech at the RNC, where he proclaimed, as the crescendo of his remarks, "Our ideas are right for American and their ideas have failed America."

3. Policy Specifics

3a. Economic crash. Clinton casts the 2008 crash as the Republicans' fault, presumably because it occurred during the tail-end of Dubya's tenure. Obama did everything he could, and the economy is growing again, but it's not fair to blame him for failing to produce a miracle. Mixing together correlation and causation, Clinton points to how the economy stopped receding in 2010 in tandem with the president's recovery program. The bottom line is that government intervention was the only sensible thing to do, and Obama did it. Clinton says, "We could have done more, but last year the Republicans blocked the president's job plan, costing the economy more than a million new jobs." Again: pragmatic Obama vs. fanatic Republicans.

3b. Energy. Pointing to Obama's pluralistic approach, Clinton underscores how renewable is cheaper and more autonomous than "Drill, baby, drill."

3c. College. Clinton points to Obama's plan to make student debt affordable by e.g. making payment-amounts correspond to income.

3d. Healthcare. Clinton nods to the Republican's ideological distaste for the Affordable Care Act, then lists the practical benefits which it's created, like lower costs and more people being covered.
(Disclaimer: your correspondent has skin in the game on this one, as he has no health insurance and will, if Obamacare stands, become eligible for coverage in something like a year and a half.)

3e. Medicare.

You might have hear Paul Ryan's claim that the President "raided" Medicare for $3/4 trillion. Your correspondent has it on the authority of Paul Krugman that this claim, aside from being BS, reeks of hypocrisy since Ryan's own budget proposes exactly the same cuts but doesn't counter them in the way that Obama's policy does. So it was pretty thrilling to hear Clinton explain this in detail:

Here's what really happened. There were no cuts to benefits at all. None. What the president did do was to save money by taking the recommendations of a commission of professionals to cut unwarranted subsidies to providers and insurance companies that were not making people healthier and were not necessary to get the providers to provide the service. And instead of raiding Medicare, he used the savings to close the doughnut hole in the Medicare drug program...and to add eight years to the life of the Medicare trust fund so it is solvent till 2024...So president Obama and the Democrats didn't weaken Medicare; they strengthened Medicare.

Now, when Congressman Ryan looked into that TV camera and attacked President Obama's Medicare savings as, quote, the biggest, coldest power play, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry--because that $716 billion is exactly, to the dollar, the same amount of Medicare savings that he has in his own budget.

And then, after the detailed explanation, WJC sums it up in a single, folksy, memorable sentence:

You got to [give him] one thing: it takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.

3f. Welfare. Clinton disputes the Republicans' claim that Obama weakened work requirements for welfare, saying that he actually strengthened them.

3g. Debt/Budget. Here Clinton has a veritable field-day with Romney's plan to simultaneously cut taxes for the wealthy and  reduce the debt, by closing unspecified loopholes in the tax code. Clinton goes through three possible outcomes for this plan:

i. To pay for his budget, Romney will have to cut so many "loopholes" that tax breaks on stuff like charitable giving and mortgages--stuff that most people want tax breaks for--will get cut, and taxes in effect will be raised for most Americans.

ii. Or Romney will cut services like the EPA, FDA, and infrastructure.

iii. Or, like the Bushes and Reagan before him, Romney will just add to the debt.
Sounding for all the world like a hard-nosed economic conservative, Clinton says, "The numbers just don't add up."

4. Conclusion. Classy as an Uncle-Sam on stilts, Clinton signs off with a jingoistic appeal to the greatness of our nation. Tears are in his eyes. It's quite moving.

It's important to note that both and give Clinton's speech, in all its meaty policy specifics, very good scores for honesty and accuracy. These numbers are not made up or taken wildly out of context, though WJC does cherry-pick a few of them.

It's also worth noting that Clinton's speech declined to mention stuff like Obama's use of drones to kill terrorists and people who happen to be standing nearby, and that Clinton (like everyone else) talks about economic growth as if it can and should continue indefinitely. (Zizek criticizes here.) It would be ridiculous to expect him to do otherwise, but we should notice the general absence of serious self-criticism in American political discourse. Again, he's a soft capitalist: the engine of inequality should stay in place, with regulations to hold back its ugliest effects.

I guess my feelings toward WJC and the democrats are roughly similar to my feelings toward the Vatican: a lot of the core convictions they're pushing are awful, but they're less awful than the alternative (the GOP and Evangelical Christianity, respectfully). And listening to intelligent, substantial discourse is always preferable to shrill generalities.

(See Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic discuss Clinton's strategy of substance here.)

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