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.