Bill Clinton’s convention speech was a tour de force. He had a difficult task to accomplish, or rather, several difficult tasks, and he performed them as well as any politician could.
His overriding task was to humanize Hillary and reintroduce her to America, for the 37th time. He spent much of his speech doing that, sharing anecdotes of Hillary as a student, a loving daughter from a good Midwestern family, a young woman willing to take chances, and a new mother raising Chelsea—all while working on important policy issues in Arkansas. He subtly depicted her as the leader in their marriage, or at least an equal partner, suggesting he knew how to become a “First Husband” and was ready for the role. He spoke of their meeting in the Yale Law Library, falling in love, giving birth to Chelsea, raising her, and taking her to college, becoming empty nesters.
In short, Bill Clinton depicted a real person in a real marriage. It is widely assumed, of course, that their marriage is a sham, filled with his cheating and her cold fury, held together only by their political ambitions. As Dennis Miller once put it, “Bill and Hillary’s marriage couldn’t have been any more about convenience than if they’d installed a Slim Jim rack and Slurpee machine at the base of their bed.” Bill’s speech was a long, brilliantly-crafted and perfectly-delivered effort to paint over that image and present a new one.
He went on to confront one of the Republicans’ most effective lines of attack: Hillary is a “status-quo politician,” and the status-quo is not good. Hillary has reinforced that message herself, saying she is running for Pres. Obama’s third term. That’s a message she cannot escape since she depends on Pres. Obama and his coalition to win. Still, Bill recognizes that this is a “change election,” and Hillary will sink if she is tied too closely to America’s current malaise. He didn’t try to say America is really in great shape, as speaker after speaker did on the convention’s first night. Rather, he strained mightily to depict Hillary as an effective “change maker.” Delegates all over the convention hall waved posters saying exactly that. Convincing the American people will be a much harder job.
For this rebranding to work, Hillary cannot be seen as the ultimate Washington insider, as she is now. Her own answer has been, “I’m a woman, so I cannot be an insider.” That rebuttal has not proved effective, so Bill tried a more interesting tact. He highlighted Hillary’s years of dedicated work for the ultimate outsiders: poor, minority children.
In sum, he painted a portrait of someone who deserves to be elected, if you believe the portrait. But do you?
Bill’s whole speech led up to that question, and he did not leave it hanging. Using the Tom Sawyer approach he has honed over decades, he asked it directly. He said that he had just described a person who was very different from the person Republicans described last week. That means one of them is real, one’s a cartoon. The question is, which picture is the real Hillary? He answered that question in his quietest, most sincere tones, biting his lip and inviting empathy.
It was the work of a master salesman. He brought the buyers into the showroom, showed them a “great buy, exactly what you need” and pointed out all the bells and whistles. But he cannot close the deal himself. He’s not running; Hillary is, and she lacks Bill’s rhetorical gifts and zest for campaigning. He loves to touch the flesh; she recoils from it. She is a grating, hectoring speaker and a far less effective campaigner than Bill Clinton (or Donald Trump). Now that Bill has primed the customers, the big question is “Can Hillary close the deal?”