Perhaps it’s no surprise that, at last week’s Democratic convention, Massachusetts was the fountain source of left-wing indignation. Deval Patrick urged Democrats to “grow a backbone” and defend their policies, lest President Obama be “bullied out of office.” Elizabeth Warren declared that the system is “rigged against” the middle class, and reminded Mitt Romney that, unlike people, corporations can’t dance.
It was all rousing and base-pleasing, the expected rebuttal to the GOP’s overstated arguments against Obama. (That he hates entrepreneurs. That he hates America. That his health care plan, which funnels patients to private insurance companies, somehow qualifies as government-takeover socialism.)
And then came Bill Clinton, channeling all of his wonkish charisma into a speech that went on and on, in part because it seemed that Clinton himself didn’t want the experience to end. Through it all, he never seemed angry or indignant. He seemed amused, detached from the ginned-up partisan rancor, trusting the facts — about job creation, Medicare, Medicaid — to argue for themselves. His message wasn’t “these folks are greedy and uncaring” or “they want to take away your rights,” or even “they don’t get it.” It was “Dude, do those guys realize how ridiculous they sound?”
This is a different plan for defending Obama, and when it comes to the battle for that tiny sliver of undecided voters, maybe this is where the Democrats need to go. Anger and frustration have their place in the political arena; I don’t blame Sandra Fluke for delivering a bitter speech, given the way Rush Limbaugh treated her when she dared to talk to Congress about birth control. And it will be fun to see Joe Biden and Paul Ryan try to out-blast each other in the next two months.
But it’s easy to swing too hard, just as it’s easy to invest too much hope into a mortal who happens to be on your side. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s best lines at the GOP convention had to do with the Greek columns and absurd expectations behind Obama’s win four years ago. (Four years ago, the website CafePress sent me a package of its pro-Obama offerings, including a tank top with a tree on the front: the branches spelled “Obama,” and the leaves were little peace signs. It almost made you feel sorry for the guy.)
Apparently, it’s hard, from the dark recesses of a campaign planning room, to get out of the hyperbole paradigm. Back in Tampa, the Republicans devoted much of their convention to diverting the Elizabeth Warren-style attacks (and also diverting attention from the more retrograde ideas of their base: Pay no attention to Todd Akin behind that curtain!) They spent a lot of time portraying Romney as a guy who does care, under the proper circumstances. They offered moving speeches, from members of Mitt’s Massachusetts congregation, about the help Romney gave in times of crisis. They tried to alter the image of a guy who would put his dog on the roof of the car.
But that’s not an argument for a Romney presidency, and it never was. Chris Christie had it right: If you want Romney in office, it’s because you’re glad he doesn’t care as much about love as he does about hitting that number. You’re looking for a guy who wants to solve a problem, and expects the dog to figure out a way to make it work.
The brilliance of Bill Clinton’s argument was that it cast Obama as a problem-solver, too — just one whose core values and specific ideas will pose a longer-term solution to our immediate crisis. Clinton took the debate out of the realm of sloganeering and into the world of common sense. He made the Democrats look like grown-ups.
His approach happens to fit, quite nicely, with Obama’s cool demeanor. In this election cycle, it also happens, quite often, to fit with the facts. Clinton’s best ad lib of the night came when he gently tore apart Paul Ryan’s rhetoric on Medicare: “It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.”
Imagine if Obama borrows that line in a debate, talking about Romney and health care. The argument would be over — no anger or frustration required.