New Jersey governor Chris Christie offered Republicans at their convention in Tampa his 2016 acceptance speech, surprising, perhaps, the Romney camp. Bill Clinton went him one better and gave the Democrats in Charlotte an argument for one more Clinton term.
Clinton’s fervor and cadence may have reminded many of the plausible claims of prior years that he was America’s first “black president,” but in promoting Barack Obama’s bid for a second term the former president came to remind the party faithful and, more importantly, TV viewers and, most importantly, TV pundits and media opiners in general, of something else entirely: that there was a time, not so long ago, when the United States government boasted an annual budget surplus, a projected end to the federal deficit in what was then the foreseeable future, a reformed social welfare program that encouraged education and rewarded work, and an economy close to full employment.
This has been an election about noise more than signal, more about reinforcing the presumptions of one side and ridiculing those of the other. It’s a tested communications strategy in elections where very few voters are undecided, when what matters is securing your base and seeking to oppress your opponent’s.
Yet the evidence that the Democrats have now turned their sights on that small pool of undecideds, as well as acting to secure their base, came first on Tuesday night when San Antonio mayor Julian Castro echoed the observation made earlier this year by President Obama (and seized upon with remarkably out-of-context enthusiasm by Republicans) that “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that.” The failure in communications here was simple, the omission of the word “alone” at the end of the sentence.
The president’s campaign has moved to correct that oversight. The slogan for the Democratic National Convention is “We make it possible,” a theme reinforced by Castro’s observation that “My family’s story isn’t special. What’s special is the America that makes our story possible. Ours is a nation like no other—a place where great journeys can be made in a single generation … no matter who you are or where you come from, the path is always forward.”
On Wednesday evening, Clinton hammered home the idea that eight years of progress under a Democratic administration had seen a substantial improvement in the American polity, an improvement built by many people working together, only for it to be undermined and then gutted by Republican intransigence and abject denial of the facts before being rescued by the steady hand of a successor Democratic president, Barack Obama.
Bill Clinton barely offered a reform president; rather, he offered a president who could return America to a better society for all, with a balanced budget, a realistic tax policy, better education, better health care, and better jobs. It is time, Clinton said, for the truth to be told: that not so long ago things were better, and then they were destroyed, and now they are getting better. He offered an embattled first-term president who should get the chance to finish making things better, just as had a Democratic president not so long ago.
Bill Clinton might just have told the first coherent story of the campaign. He couldn’t offer Bill Clinton as a candidate, so he offered the next best thing: the man who could complete what Bill Clinton had started.
Christopher Fauske PhD is associate professor of communications at Salem State University.