On Wednesday evening, Bill Clinton will deliver a prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention. The former president loves the limelight and ordinarily would relish every minute of what will surely be a hero’s return to the party he almost single-handedly saved from collapse 20 years ago. What will make the speech awkward is his task: to prop up a failing president who represents the opposite of what Clinton represents, in both style and substance.
After taking office, Clinton raised taxes on the middle class, failed to reform healthcare and went on to suffer the worst midterm defeat of any modern president up to that point. But by 1996, the “Comeback Kid” had bounced back. He’d successfully triangulated, opting to not only work with a Republican Congress, but shamelessly take credit for the success of their agenda.
Clinton became the champion of smaller government, welfare reform and balanced budgets. His 1996 speech was a litany of success stories, legislative victories and good news for Americans. He struck an inclusive tone, discussing “opportunity for all” and the need to “build a bridge to the 21st century.” It was as if 1993 and 1994 had never happened. Clinton was reinvented and re-elected.
Obama, by contrast, goes into his convention with an obstinacy that has become the hallmark of his presidency. The policies he will defend in his convention speech — including the stimulus, Obamacare and his green jobs programs — are unpopular with large segments of the population. Rather than trying to compromise with Republicans, he has dug in.
And with 23 million Americans unemployed and many of his 2008 campaign promises unfulfilled, Obama is in a much worse position than Clinton was 16 years ago. His hold on independent voters and blue-collar Democrats is slipping fast. Clinton received one of the biggest convention bounces in history. Obama will likely get one of the smallest.
Clinton, the master politician that he is, surely knows this. While he must love the idea of saving Obama from himself, he must be worried about the consequences of a second Obama term.
In fact, Clinton probably doesn’t want Obama to win. Former Clinton staff members, pundits and political observers will tell you that Bill Clinton makes his decisions with an eye toward how those decisions will be viewed by history. A second Obama term would be a disaster for Clinton’s legacy.
Clinton also has plenty of personal differences with Obama.
For one, Clinton fancies himself as a political savior — a combination of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. But now Obama has cornered the market on political saviors.
Clinton succeeded by compromising with Republicans and loved playing the part of president. Obama is far more ideological and views politics as an annoyance and public opinion as a temptation.
Clinton is the only Democratic president to be re-elected since Franklin Delano Roosevelt won a fourth term in 1944 — and likes it that way.
In the end, expect the tension between these two men to persist well into the future. It may by masked with fake smiles and party politics, but the disdain the radical ideologue has for the compromising politician must be real.
On Wednesday night, Clinton shouldn’t try to defend the indefensible. He should let Obama stand on his own.
Thomas J. Basile is a Republican commentator, former Bush Administration official and former executive director of the New York State Republican Party. Follow him on Twitter.