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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Bill Clinton's progressive message rocks the Democratic National Convention
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For progressives, Clinton, like the whole campaign and the whole convention, is an exercise in wish-fulfillment.
For progressives, Clinton, like the whole campaign and the whole convention, is an exercise in wish-fulfillment.
Credit:C-SPAN

The Big Dog rocked the house in Charlotte with his long, humorous take-down of Romney, Ryan, and the whole Republican hate-fest.

Republicans bring up Bill Clinton even less frequently than they mention George W. Bush. And here's why:

"Don't you ever forget," Clinton told the crowd in Charlotte in his speech, "Republican national policies quadrupled the national debt before I took office, and doubled the debt after I left."

We cannot afford to give the next four years, he added, "to someone who will double down on trickle down."

Just looking at Clinton reminds people of the 1990s surplus and prosperity.

More than the fantasy Romney and Ryan engender -- that it takes a rich businessman to restore Americans' dreams of success -- Clinton speaks to Americans' sense of genuine possibility.

Like Elizabeth Warren right before him, Clinton himself (not his great-grandparents or people he met once on the campaign trail) came from humble roots, and he connects, directly, to the way most Americans actually live.

More importantly, he gave a fact-filled rebuttal to a list of the biggest lies the Romney campaign is running on.

Clinton, the architect of welfare reform, easily dispatched the Romney campaign's ridiculous charge that Obama weakened welfare reform's work requirements.

He took on Ryan's claim that Obama made cold, cruel, heartless and damaging cuts to Medicare. The cuts, which didn't affect benefits at all, dealt with genuine inefficiency and fraud, and were exactly the same dollar amount called for in the Ryan budget.

Departing from his prepared text Clinton, laughing, remarked, "It takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did."

Clinton reminded his audience of some of Obama's most progressive initiatives, which have made a palpable difference in people's lives: the mini-DREAM Act, the auto industry turnaround, the Affordable Care Act, and student loan reform.

He returned again and again to "simple arithmetic" to make the case that America is, in fact, better off than it was four years ago, reeling off numbers of jobs created by the stimulus and auto bailout. The House Republicans and Mitt Romney's job-creation score, Clinton intoned repeatedly: "zeeero"

Clinton's summary of the Republican message about Obama: "We left him a total mess, he didn't clean it up fast enough, so fire him and put us back in."

Summing up the difference between Democrats and Republicans, he declared: "'We're all in this together' is a far better philosophy than, 'You're on your own.'"

The delegates, and Democrats everywhere, were thrilled.

Fox News snarking about how long and boring it was is not credible -- Clinton brought down the house.

For progressives, Clinton, like the whole campaign and the whole convention, is an exercise in wish-fulfillment. It's great to hear such an articulate spokesman stand up for fundamental progressive values against the far right.

But when Clinton said we should re-elect Obama because he believes in compromise and reaching across the aisle, it was a jarring reminder of how we got where we are in the first place.

The man who struck the first blow against the New Deal by doing away with "welfare as we know it," who deregulated the banking industry, presided over the destruction of manufacturing jobs with NAFTA, and who never did marshal the surplus and his own political capital to address inequality that grew on his watch and has grown wider ever since, is standing up for progressive values now.

Clinton always gave great speeches. He is a great politician. His State of the Union addresses were ringing endorsements of a progressive vision that expressed itself in micro policy initiatives that didn't make great change.

He will always get credit for the tech boom -- whether deserved or not. And it makes a handy political contrast with the phony deficit hawks who ran up debt to cut corporate taxes. Taxes on the rich were over 36% when Clinton was in office -- amazing to contemplate in the post-Bush era.

But like Nixon, Clinton looks like a great progressive in the rear-view mirror -- because our country has moved so far to the right after him, and in part because of him.

The Democrats don't contemplate it much, because Obama has never actually repealed those Bush tax cuts on the very rich.

Obama and Clinton are actually very similar in their inspiring rhetoric, and in their failure to seize their chances to make significant progressive change.

All that compromise and triangulation opened the door to the radicalism of Newt Gingrich and of Romney/Ryan -- putting entitlement reform on the table, signing the repeal of Glass-Steagall, undermining unions by failing to support fair trade or the Employee Free Choice Act, backing experiments in education, and welfare that let those left behind fend for themselves.

It's poignant to see all those union signs in the hall. Yes, Obama saved the auto industry, and deserves credit for it.

Yes, the list of policies Clinton recited -- as well as the moving testimony by auto workers, illegal immigrants, Sandra Fluke, and the frequent defense of gay marriage -- make a very compelling case that Obama is a far better alternative than Romney and Ryan for the 99%.

But what the Democrats deem politically possible has contracted so much thanks, in large part, to Clinton's centrist leadership.

Like Clinton, Obama has backed stacked-deck trade deals pushed by multinationals that kill American jobs and disadvantage American-based companies. One man opened the door to the financial crisis with the repeal of banking regulation, the other did nothing to punish the Wall Street hucksters who still "strut the halls of Congress" as Elizabeth Warren so incisively put it.

Isn't it interesting that, come the homestretch in a national political campaign, the Democrats return to their progressive, populist roots?

Wouldn't it be great if that said more about how they actually governed?

They know that the progressive message is, to paraphrase Clinton, both morally right and a political winner.

Somewhere in there is a lever for real, inspiring change.

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