09/18/2012 01:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Are the Main Highlights From Bill Clinton's Speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention?

This question originally appeared on Quora.
By Pete Forsyth, Principal of Wiki Strategies

First and foremost, Clinton's speech was a great performance. Its significance can't be grasped through a summary or analysis, no more than you could understand why a concert was great if you didn't hear it. I highly recommend watching the speech yourself.

(C-SPAN has non-embeddable video of the speech: Encumbered by C-SPAN's unfortunate copyright policy. But I digress.)

I think the most important piece could not be cast as a "highlight" -- it's the overall impact on the audience. A friend of mine who is not terribly political, and is generally rather cynical, commented after this speech "it's like he wasn't talking TO the audience, he was talking WITH them." Like so many great performances, the way he interacted with the audience's energy was of critical importance; with a different audience, this fifty minute speech would have felt long and boring, but not with this crowd.

Overall, I think one of the most important things Clinton did was to create an opportunity which Obama then squandered. By respectfully and convincingly dismantling the message of the Romney/Ryan campaign and the RNC, as only a former president with a deep understanding of policy and politics could, Clinton gave Obama a chance to take a higher road. In my opinion, when Obama veered into things like his laugh line about Romney's ability to go to Beijing when he couldn't even go to London without offending foreigners, he degraded his office. After Clinton's speech, I think Obama was free to put the focus on his own vision for the next four years; unfortunately, he didn't take advantage of that.

Anyway, I'm watching the speech a second time as I write this, and pulling out some themes and quotes that seem significant to me.

Important themes:

  • He didn't merely repeat lines that would appeal to the party faithful, he wove ideas together ideas in a way that educated his audience. Helping people see new things and learn is a great way to keep their attention and earn their respect.
  • He made a strong case that Obama's record to date is a success, citing facts and drawing on his own experience as president and understanding of political dynamics. "Are we better off than when he first took office? The economy was in freefall ... are we doing better than that today? YES."
  • Obama is an effective leader -- more motivated and better equipped to bridge partisan divide than Romney
  • Paint a picture of the Republicans in Congress as obstructing progress, without offering a path forward.
  • Any Obama-Clinton bitterness lingering from the 2008 primary is old news, and unimportant in the face of their shared vision for America
  • Pointed appreciation for military and their families contrasted with minimal mentions at the Republican National Convention.
  • Genuine praise for some of George W. Bush's work established a strong contrast with the Republicans' efforts to avoid mentioning him.

Important specific points:

  • "We're in this together" (D) is a better philosophy than "you're on your own" (R) - not just as a philosophical point, but backed up with a compelling statistic: since 1961, nearly twice as many private sector jobs have been generated under Democratic presidents than under Republicans.
  • "What works in the real world is cooperation." "They didn't check their brains at the door, they didn't stop disagreeing, but their purpose was to get something done." See: 2012 Democratic Convention: What did Bill Clinton mean when he said, "A broken clock is right twice a day"? This is always a tricky point, as it requires simultaneously criticizing your opponent while expressing a willingness to work with them. Clinton walked this line artfully. "Politics doesn't have to be a blood sport, it can be an honorable enterprise that advances the public interest."
  • "... as the Senate Republican leader said, in a remarkable moment of candor, two full years before the election, their #1 priority was not to put America back to work, it was to put the President out of work." Democrats are the grown-ups trying to take on real problems, while Republicans focus on division and conflict.
  • Paraphrasing RNC message: "We left [Obama] a total mess, he hasn't cleaned it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in." ... "They want to go back to the same policies that got us in trouble in the first place." ... "No president ... could have fully repaired all the damage that [Obama] found in just four years."
  • "[Obama's] auto industry restructuring worked." Presented as not merely a tactically sound approach, but also something that required a different kind of vision than a successful businessman would bring.
  • Obama's work on student loans motivated by this: "nobody will have to drop out of college again for fear they can't repay their debt." A kind of rhetoric unheard of at RNC.
  • Health care: "individuals and businesses have already gotten more than $1B in refunds from insurance companies." "Insurance companies have applied to lower their rates to comply with the program." "For the last two years, after going up at 3x inflation for a decade, health care costs have been under 4% in both years for the first time in fifty years."
  • In response to Romney and Ryan, who attacked Obama for allegedly "robbing Medicare," "There were no cuts to benefits at all. None." What the president did to save money was ... to cut unwarranted subsidies to providers and insurance companies that were not making people healthy ... and were not necessary ... and used the savings to close the doughnut hole in the Medicare drug program, and to add 8 years to the Medicare trust fund so it is solvent to 2024." "Democrats didn't weaken Medicare, they strengthened Medicare."
  • What Ryan criticized in Obama's Medicare plan is exactly, to the dollar, the same thing Ryan had proposed in his own budget. "It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did."
  • If Romney gets his way, "Medicare will go broke in 2016." "They also want to block grant Medicaid and cut it by a third over the next ten years." "That's gonna hurt a lot of poor kids ... and seniors ... and people with disabilities." "If that happens, I don't know what [a lot of middle class families with kids with disabilities] are going to do."
  • "[Romney's] campaign pollster said 'we are not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.' Finally, I can say ... that is true."
  • "The Romney [defecit reduction] plan fails the first test of fiscal responsibility: the numbers just don't add up." Republicans: "... we'll make the debt hole bigger before we start to get out of it." "... we'll make it up by eliminating loopholes in the tax code." Which loopholes? "See me about that after the election."
  • Oh how he (Clinton) got four consecutive surplus budgets: "Arithmetic." Big applause line. If the numbers don't add up in a plan like Romney's, one of three things will happen: (1) they have to eliminate so many deductions that middle class families will pay more taxes, (2) they have to eliminate so much spending that things like national parks, student loans, safety regulation, etc. etc. are eliminated, or (3) as they've done before, they will cut the taxes way more than they cut spending, explode the debt, weaken the economy, and let interest gobble up all your tax payments.
  • "We simply cannot afford to give the reins of government to someone who will double down on trickle-down."
  • "When we vote in this election, we'll be deciding what kind of country we want to live in. If you want a winner-take-all, you're-on-your-own society, you should support the Republican ticket. But if you want a country of shared opportunity and shared responsibility, a we're-all-in-this-together society, you should vote for Obama and Biden."
  • "If you want every American to vote, and you think it is wrong to change voting procedures just to reduce the turnout of younger, poor, and minority voters, you should support Barack Obama."

Full transcript of the speech:

The Washington Post has a nice interactive feature allowing you to jump to highlights:

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