Bill Clinton’s Speech

I already did one item about Bill Clinton’s speech, but I probably have more to say about it. Beyond that: I missed a couple of hours there, but from my twitter feed, it doesn’t seem that I missed much; I got back a little before the broadcast hour, and mostly discovered that the Democrats don’t have enough CEOs to select based on speaking ability, and that Elizabeth Warren isn’t much of a convention speaker.

Anyway, Bill Clinton. Yeah, he’ll do.

I’m not neutral on this one. Regular readers know that I like politicians as a group. And, well, he’s just so much a politician. As much as I tell people that you can’t really get inside their heads, it’s about as certain as anything can be that he just loves it. Just loves it. Not just, as I’ve seen some say, loving that the crowd loves him — he sure seems to love every aspect of it. Particularly, policy: learning the most wonkish of details, but then transforming them into something that…well, I can’t really judge if average voters can understand it, but what he’s brilliant at doing is transforming it into something that can impress average voters by sounding like it’s extremely substantive while at the same time impressing policy folks by actually being extremely substantive, and (usually, and as far as I could hear tonight) factually honest.

Look, here’s the thing. GOPer Steve Schmidt said tonight (and I’m sure plenty of others did too) that ““I wish to God as a Republican we had someone on our side who had the ability to do that.” But you know what? It’s not just luck that Democrats have a Bill Clinton and Republicans don’t. Granted, political talent could show up for either party. But a Republican these days couldn’t do what Clinton did tonight, because Republican gatekeepers and, probably, Republican audiences don’t want that kind of thing.

It’s not that there are no solid, factual, arguments for the policies Republicans prefer. There certainly are! But a politician who tried to stick to those would be competing with the Glenn Becks of the party, and the Rush Limbaughs, and the Newt Gingriches, and the “facts” that those party leaders constantly trot out. Democrats, to be sure, have to compete with some fringe voices who have a dubious grasp of facts and policy, but for whatever reason those voices are kept on the fringe. That’s just not the case for Republicans.

It’s not always been that way. But that’s how it is now.

And so Paul Ryan gets a reputation as a substantive Republican…while repeating the most nutty myths about budgets and health care reform (yes, a David Obey would or a Henry Waxman will give a very partisan interpretation of contested facts; how often do they just make stuff up?). And so Republicans celebrate the policy ignorance of a Herman Cain or a Sarah Palin. And so Republicans don’t even bother forcing George W. Bush to show he knows anything about policy or government before they nominate him; to the contrary, they argue that he’s a better president because he’s not bogged down by all of that stuff and can better govern from his instincts.

You’re not going to get a Bill Clinton if your party gives no incentives at all for a smart youngster to try to become that sort of politician. Truth is, a Republican who really knew policy well enough to make the arguments Clinton made tonight would have to hide it.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.