Cooperation and the Clinton effect

Clinton at DNC 2012-mandatory courtesy Johannes Worsøe Berg
President Bill Clinton thrills delegates at the Democratic Convention, in his speech nominating President Obama to a second term. (Photo Courtesy: Johannes Worsøe Berg)

Why is it that a Bill Clinton speech can soften Republican hearts when President Obama hardens them so much?

Alex Castellanos, a Republican operator who offers his side’s commentary for CNN’s political coverage, told viewers, after watching President Clinton’s nomination speech, Wednesday night, “…tonight when everybody leaves, lock the doors. You don’t have to come back tomorrow. This convention is done. This will be the moment that probably reelected Barack Obama.”

And the 2008 McCain-Palin campaign adviser, Steve Schmidt, described Clinton’s speech as “extraordinary” and a “virtuoso political performance.” Speaking on a panel, with MSNBC‘s Rachel Maddow, Schmidt lamented, “I wish to God, as a Republican, we had someone on our side who had the ability to do that. We don’t.”

Schmidt pointed to the “political genius” of Clinton’s attacks on the Republicans, “delivered,” he said, “with an absence of malice or anger, with a smile on his face, logic, aimed squarely at the middle of the electorate.”

President Obama also recognized the 42nd president’s skill, during a conference call with supporters who were shut out of Thursday’s acceptance speech, when it was moved from a 65,000 seat stadium to the 20,000 seat Time Warner Cable Arena. “President Clinton,” he told them, “broke down the issues as effectively as anybody could.”

The electorate succeeds when they pick a president who is smart and easy to understand, and a little wit and charm doesn’t hurt. Over the past fifty years, that simple list of human qualities can arguably be applied to four leaders of our republic – three Democrats and one Republican: Kennedy, Clinton, Obama, and Reagan, respectively.

Johnson’s “charm” was kind of his an anti-charm, and Carter, while he shared all those qualities, had his own way of doing things that many in Washington, D.C., fought against, and no matter how many times Americans sought to rally around him, he never completely sold the public on his agenda, and then he had an international crisis to deal with, and then he had to go against Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan made many feel warm and fuzzy, albeit more than a little distrustful, if you paid attention to liberal causes, coming from his cooperation with House Un-American Activities Committee, in the 1950s, and his stern hand in fighting dissent in California, in the 1960s. Regardless of whether or not that bothers you, at least he and Congress were not only confident they could work together, they actually did work together. There was no other way to get the job done.

So it’s not just that they demonstrate a likable, smart-easy-charming-witty way with the electorate. They have to be able to use some of that charm when dealing with Congress, as well. “Through my foundation,” Clinton explained to the convention crowd, “I’m working all the time, with Democrats, Republicans, and independents; sometimes, I couldn’t tell you for the life [of me] who I’ve been working with, because we focus on solving problems and seizing opportunities, and not fighting all the time.”

And make no mistake – he wasn’t talking about the president not cooperating; he was talking about Congress’ organized bulwark against Obama, that recently came to light, and the Republicans’ stubborn refusal to give an inch for fear of making Obama look successful. “What works in the real world is cooperation,” he reminded voters watching the speech.

“One of the main reasons we need to reelect President Obama, is that he is still committed to constructive cooperation,” he said.

The question is, is that enough? “President Clinton was incredible,” said Brad Woodhouse, the Democratic Party Communications director. But, he says, they do not necessarily expect a great tidal movement to their side.”We don’t expect a bounce out of this convention. This race has not moved all summer,” referring to polls that show the president with a lead in electoral votes, but still very close in polling, particularly in battleground states.

Even though he was ambivalent about the effect of the convention on undecided voters, Woodhouse was certain of one thing. “I would say, President Clinton’s speech, in favor of President Obama was better than the one George Bush gave in Tampa for Mitt Romney. Oh,” he said, in feigned surprise, “that’s right. He wasn’t there.”


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