The Big Dog’s Big Opportunity

With former president Bill Clinton now officially slated to place Barack Obama’s name in nomination Wednesday night, the question now is how the 42d president will utilize this opportunity.

Until quite recently, the obvious role for Clinton was to rebut the idea that Obama’s policies–particularly his tax policies–were somehow antithetical to economic growth incompatible with a thriving private sector, or responsible for the nation’s fiscal problems. That remains an important task, and one that Clinton should respond to very personally, since he, too, had to battle the argument that very slightly higher top-level income tax rates would create an economic calamity, or more generally, that political leaders had to bend to the maximum demands of “job creators,” who would spitefully plunge the nation into a downward spiral if forced to support public investments or tolerate regulation.

But as I’ve argued earlier, Clinton has an even more urgent opportunity and obligation in Charlotte: to demolish, as no one else can, the mendacious claim that Obama is unraveling successful and popular Clinton policies, most notably the 1996 welfare reform legislation. Most of the Romney/Ryan ads playing on this racially heavy-handed theme feature Clinton’s image, supporting a much longer series of assertions by the GOP candidate and his campaign that Obama is a radical old-school social democrat who is determined to unravel Clinton’s “centrist reforms” of his party and of the public sector.

This line of attack on Obama isn’t simply designed to “drive up negatives” for the incumbent, but also, by implication, to depict Romney as a relatively safe alternative who is at least as likely as Obama to hew to some moderate course of action in the immediate future. In other words, it’s at the very heart of the entire GOP general-election strategy.

Clinton could tear that heart right out and stomp on it. On the welfare attack, he is uniquely qualified to look right into the camera and call out Romney and Ryan for a bold-face lie, and also make it clear it is the GOP agenda, which would systematically erode federal and state “make-work-pay” supports for the working poor–including Medicaid (and ObamaCare!), the EITC, food stamps and training programs–that threatens the legacy of the 1996 law. This would not be an act of political charity for Obama; Clinton had to bludgeon Republicans into a version of welfare reform that gave private-sector job placement some priority over the hammer-headed conservative goals of reducing public assistance unilaterally or dumping the whole problem on the states. I can’t imagine he’d stand by as revisionists try to pretend simple viciousness or evasion of responsibility was the whole idea.

More generally, of course, Clinton is in an unusually credible position to challenge the overriding GOP narrative that the country was in fine shape until Barack Obama became president. An never-ending cascade of budget deficits, public and private borrowing, reduced income security, wealth inequality, deregulation, and international instability, were the deliberate and predictable consequences of GOP policies under George W. Bush, culminating in the 2008 disaster. To the extent Republicans are determined to make this election a “referendum” on past policies and their results, it’s very important to expand the windows of memory to the last two decades, not just the last four years. The GOP is seeking to make the mess it largely created and helped exacerbate by obstruction a rationale for a radically intensified version of the same policies. This would sweep away Clinton’s own legacy almost entirely, as I am sure he realizes. So the time is ripe for a speech that will if nothing else set the record straight and raise the stakes for an election in which turnout could be crucial and the willingness of a small slice of the electorate to fall for lies and evasions could be fatal.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.