09/27/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

On National Security Night, Clinton Keeps His Gun Holstered and Biden Fires Away

Bill Clinton let it be known beforehand that he wasn't happy making his speech on national security night -- preferring to talk about the economy and, hence, his legacy. You could tell. National security rated only passing mentions.

He spent the majority of his speech wheeling through the things he obviously feels more comfortable talking about. The economy. Social Security. Global warming. Africa. Eradicating malaria and HIV/AIDS. Hillary. Becoming a debtor nation. Affordable health care. The war on unions. Income disparity. Tax policy. Lost jobs. Crime rates. The American Dream. Hope.

All of them good things. But things that don't move the needle on what is perceived as John McCain's greatest strength: keeping us safe.

Indeed, when Clinton talked about the nation's safety, he was perfunctory -- general when specifics were called for, despite the fact that the Bush years have given us so many tragic specifics to remind the American people of.

He didn't even try to make the case about all the ways McCain would make us less safe -- giving him a virtual free pass on this vital question.

Yes, the former president forcefully made the point that the charge of youth and inexperience being leveled at Obama was the same charge leveled at him in 1992. But he never made the case why Obama would be better at keeping us safe, beyond saying he would try diplomacy first.

So while it was good to have Clinton unequivocally voice his support for Obama and lend his considerable authority to the case that Obama is ready to lead, his speech felt like a squandered opportunity. A squandered opportunity that reinforced the notion that Democrats either don't know how to talk about -- or don't have the stomach for talking about -- national security. It felt very pre-9/11.

The first half of Biden"s speech -- which was passionate, emotional, and very effective -- was centered on the economic concerns of working class Americans. Even when he turned his attention to his attack on McCain ("That's not change; that's more of the same"), the first issues he went after him on were his support of oil companies and the 19 times he voted against raising the minimum wage. And the first things he praised Obama for were his tax policy, and his plans to transform the economy, make college more affordable, bring down health care costs, put more cops on the street, protect social security, and fight for equal pay for women.

Just when I started to wonder if he too hadn't gotten the memo that this was national security night at the DNC, Biden finally went after McCain on this crucial issue.

He deemed Bush's foreign policy record an "abysmal failure" and indicted McCain as "complicit" in it. Most important, he repeatedly, effectively, and with great detail made the case that on the key national security issues of our time - including Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan - "McCain was wrong and Obama was right."

It was a powerful indictment of McCain -- a heaping, close-to-9-minute serving of the red meat that has been sorely missing from the convention menu this week -- and effectively made the case that national security is actually John McCain's weakness.

That's a point Democrats need to relentlessly hammer home from now until Election Day. Even when it's not national security night.

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