Originally published in Official Artur Davis
Last night, Bill Clinton was the consummate trial lawyer that he would have become had his Arkansas comebacks not worked out: saddled with bad facts, he talked three times as long and tugged on twice as many heartstrings as he and his text had planned.
To use a riff that Clinton regularly invoked, was he right? Infrequently, and the wrongs included some whoppers: like the Democratic meme that a grinch named Mitch McConnell stole Obama’s prospects by pledging to block his reelection. The only problem: when McConnell said it, he had a meager 40 votes in the Senate, and managed to stop a grand total of 0 Obama initiatives in the first half of this term (even after gaining a 41st vote to preserve the right of filibuster). Then there is the inconvenient truth that the allegedly obstructive McConnell cut a deal with Democrats that avoided a massive scheduled tax hike at the end of 2010 and by so doing, almost certainly saved Obama from a second recession in three years.
And the jobs bill that the grinch supposedly blocked in 2011: still waiting for an Obama loyalist, Harry Reid, to bring it to the floor in a Democratic Senate. Which of course calls to mind the multiple Obama budgets, the prescriptive documents that Clinton once called “blueprints for the future”, that failed to command a single Democratic vote in either house. An oddity perhaps of the legislative process, but one more thing that undercuts the theme that it is a unique kind of right-wing intransigence that has undone Obama.
What about the notion that hard-hearted Republicans have it in mind to devastate Medicaid and to leave the old and poor in a tear-inducing state? Powerful, beautiful words–it just happens that it was the Obama Administration that threatened to shut down state Medicaid programs if governors refused to accept the Affordable Care Act’s new Medicaid regulations, until seven Supreme Court justices stopped them. Or the glossing over of the Affordable Care Act’s 700 billion dollar reduction in Medicare on the grounds that it was “merely” a reduction in provider fees: a shrewdly constructed distinction until one recalls that the essence of Medicare is reimbursing providers rather than making direct outlays to patients.
It was telling, too, that Clinton in full flight, and with 50 minutes to do it, never found his way to a rendition of Obama’s record that is as succinct and as definitive as the former president’s take on his own tenure: 22 million jobs, expanded wealth and reduced poverty, and fiscal policies that augmented enough purchasing power to amount to a check to American. The Obama case, even in its most lovingly embroidered light, is too textured with mitigation—replacing precipitous losses with still meager private sector job growth that is way short of the natural expansion in the labor pool; a healthcare overhaul that does not contain private costs; a Wall Street reform that does not rein in wild speculative losses at JP Morgan; heightened poverty and child hunger on a liberal president’s watch, a relatively successful legislative record that few Americans feel affected by. That the master orator could not condense it into a success story with no “buts”, and the fact that the words “Barack Obama has succeeded” were missing from Clinton’s text and the ad-libs, speaks volumes to Obama’s dilemma.
No one litigates ugly truths better than Clinton. It is a marvelous thing to watch him and that is no saracasm or damnation with faint praise: in a culture where speeches are over-laden with biographical inventory and where speakers reserve their greatest passion for an embellished retelling of their own struggles, Clinton knows how to argue and deploy details on behalf of the diminished art of persuasion. He does his audience the credit of assuming it can follow threads without needing the faux connection of a hard knock story. Not one other address in Tampa or Charlotte has touched those heights. (Although more than a few of the competing oralists in Charlotte have relied on decibel levels, and motherhood, and every conceivable shout-out to the Democratic litany of aggrieved minorities to try to stir souls). But rarely has a major speech trashed so many undeniable facts.