By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Bill Clinton is typically described as the empathetic, feel-your-pain guy. But his greatest political skill may be as a formulator of arguments—the explainer in chief.
And it’s no accident that the former president’s role in this year’s Democratic convention is very nearly as important as President Obama’s. What’s most striking about this conclave is that it bids to be a three-day tutorial session aimed at aggressively defending a view of government and the economy for which, over most of the last 40 years, Democrats have usually apologized.
It’s ironic that the 42nd president plays the co-professor with Obama in this advanced government class, for Clinton is associated with a determined effort to distance his party from its past. When Clinton pronounced in 1996 that “the era of big government is over,” it was taken as a concession to the new conservatism that swept to control of Congress just over a year earlier.
But Clinton’s rhetorical move was more tactical than fundamental. He never stopped believing in the power of government. And now that Republicans are putting forward the most emphatically pro-business, anti-government agenda on offer since the Gilded Age, he and his fellow Democrats now feel an urgency to assert the state’s positive role. The economic market, they insist, cannot deliver what the nation needs all by itself.
Thus, one of the most applauded lines of the convention’s first night came from Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. “It’s time for Democrats to grow a backbone,” Patrick proclaimed, “and stand up for what we believe.” Rarely has a party so fully embraced a declaration that implied its own past spinelessness. Speaker after speaker answered Patrick’s call.
While Michelle Obama’s speech, the performance of her life, was apolitical on the surface, it regularly came back to arguing, subtly and implicitly, that hardworking Americans who start out on the social ladder’s lower rungs can be assisted in their struggles by the empowering hand of government.
In his keynote address, Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio was explicit about this: “We know that you can’t be pro-business unless you’re pro-education,” he said. “We know that pre-K and student loans aren’t charity.” Over and over, government was presented not as an officious intermeddler in people’s lives but as an ally of families determined to help their children to rise.
And there lay the other stark contrast between the Tampa Republicans and the Charlotte Democrats. The Republicans built their whole convention around an out-of-context quotation from the president (“You didn’t build that”) and offered as their counter-theme, “We built it.”
But so often, as a friend pointed out, the message of Tampa came off more as: “We own it.” Working people and the dignity of labor receded almost entirely at a gathering whose real stars were investors, entrepreneurs and business leaders on whom others are dependent for employment. Pride arose less from hard work than from the ability to deploy capital.
Democrats are no less committed to the American Dream, but their dream is built on individual and family struggle. While Republicans cast themselves as the party of “family values,” Democrats here spoke far more about upward mobility as a family enterprise.
Thus Michelle Obama’s description of her father as a man whose “measure of his success in life” came from “being able to earn a decent living that allowed him to support his family.” Thus Castro’s definition of the American Dream as “not a sprint, or even a marathon, but a relay.” He explained that “each generation passes on to the next the fruits of their labor.”
Democrats know that even if they persuade a majority that Barack Obama’s approach to government is closer than Romney’s to their own, they still carry the burden of high unemployment. That’s the value of Bill Clinton’s witness. Many wavering voters remember the Clinton years as an all-too-brief journey through the economic Promised Land and will pay close attention to his stamp of approval on Obama’s way forward.
But Democrats are also aware that victory depends on encouraging voters to see Romney’s policies as a throwback—not only to the George W. Bush years but also to the rough-and-tumble economics of the pre-New Deal Era, to a time when capital decisively held the upper hand over labor. Their three-day seminar was designed to show, as Lilly Ledbetter of Fair Pay Act fame suggested, that Obama understands why an extra 23 cents an hour in a paycheck matters more to most voters than a capital gains tax cut.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group