In a few months, perhaps also in some years, we’ll probably be left with only two images from the 2012 National Conventions: from the Republican side, Clint Eastwood speaking to an empty chair (bizarre!); from the Democratic side, Bill Clinton nominating Barack Obama.
That had certainly to do with Clinton’s South American slang and relaxed body language; his not keeping entirely to script, making good jokes, going over scheduled time and providing several good one liners. But above all: the packaging matched the contents.
Besides providing a good overview and defense of Obama’s policy reforms during his first term, Bill Clinton succeeded in shifting the agenda away from the question of the economy to that of the role of government, and, in particular, the role of federal government.
The key metaphor came early in the speech, when Clinton used a quote from former Democratic Party Chairman Bob Strauss to pinpoint the key difference between the Republican and Democratic political narratives:
“Bob Strauss used to say every politician wants every voter to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself. But as Strauss then admitted, it ain’t so.”
And, he continued:
“We Democrats, we think the country works better with a strong middle class, with real opportunities for poor folks to work their way into it, with a relentless focus on the future, with business and government actually working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity. You see, we believe that ‘We’re all in this together’ is a far better philosophy than ‘You’re on your own.’”
Rather than lamenting the Republicans’ repeated betrayal of the principles of bipartisanship, he highlighted the advantages of cooperation as opposed to constant conflict, again by using a simple metaphor. The message was the same, the effect much greater:
“Why does cooperation work better than constant conflict? Because nobody’s right all the time, and a broken clock is right twice a day. And every one of us—every one of us and everyone of them are compelled to spend our fleeting lives between those two extremes, knowing we’re never going to be right all the time, and hopefully we’re right more than twice a day.”
After thus framing the debate, he went on to outline the Democratic reforms and explain his conviction that these are far better for America than what the Republicans are planning, even if their positive impact has yet to be fully realized.
It is said that Americans always vote with their wallets rather than their hearts or minds. Given the present (still weak) state of the economy, with unemployment rate hovering above eight per cent, this is presumed to be a plus point for Mitt Romney.
Yet, this time round—not least because of the success of the Republican Tea Party—the scope of government intervention is an equally strong issue.
Given Americans’ strong faith in individualism, the Democratic Party has had trouble coming out of its defensive stance in this regard. Bill Clinton seems to have finally identified the right spin for the Democratic Party campaign:
The question as to the ‘right’ degree of government intervention is at the same time a question about the degree of inclusiveness of a political community and the desirability of cooperation. That’s how Obama would put it. Admittedly, Clinton’s log cabin and broken clock metaphors are more evocative.