Cosman: Clinton provides much needed policy among generic convention speeches

On Wednesday Sept. 5, former President Bill Clinton spoke at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. For nearly an hour, Clinton set a clear example of what a political speech should be: articulate, detailed and policy driven.

His audience – in Charlotte, N.C. and across the country – hung on to each of his 5,896 words as he made the case for President Barack Obama’s re-election. The audience cheered Clinton 105 times and laughed 33 times. A day after Michelle Obama delivered an emotional, anecdote-driven speech that established Obama as a person, Clinton did the opposite. On the second day of the convention, he ignored the personal and stuck to the heart of the matter.

Clinton’s speech, which ran 2,619 words longer than his prepared remarks, was a systematic dissection of Obama the president, the politician and the policymaker.

What set Clinton’s speech apart was that, unlike most speakers at either party convention this year, he laid out specific accounts of policy, brazenly unafraid of the gritty details. Clinton, who has spoken at every DNC since 1988, took advantage of his rapt audience. He broke down the 2012 presidential election into a simple matter. To quote the former president, the choice between Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney is all about “arithmetic.”

The former president spent his 48 minutes explaining to the audience why arithmetic is all the evidence needed to warrant the re-election of the current president. While the other speakers at both the Republican National Convention and DNC – including a disappointingly safe speech by Obama – gave broad speeches that avoided the specifics, Clinton got right down to it and defended Obama with cold, hard facts.

It is indisputable that, as Clinton said, “in the last 29 months, [the American] economy has produced about 4.5 million private-sector jobs,” – the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts private-sector job growth at 4.544 million. Obama’s “Make Work Pay” tax credit did indeed, as Clinton said, “cut taxes for 95 percent of the American people.”

Clinton used the numbers not only to defend Obama, but also to attack the Romney-Ryan ticket. It is a fact that vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s budget cuts taxes from the top 1 percent by 11.7 percent of their income, compared to a mere 7.3 percent under former President George W. Bush. It is also true that Romney’s plan increases defense spending by $2.1 trillion more than the Pentagon suggests.

Sure, not all of Clinton’s statements check out. A few of his assertions about Medicare and Medicaid strayed from the truth. But nearly every one of his claims defending Obama’s economic policies – claims on which Romney seems to make this election a referendum – pass the test. Certainly, in comparison to Paul Ryan’s speech one week prior, Clinton’s comes out clean. The numbers are the numbers; Clinton lets the math speak for itself.

That is what makes Clinton’s speech an excellent example for others. He didn’t pander to the American public with personal stories or appeals to emotion. He gave voters the benefit of the doubt that when the numbers are laid out for them, clearly and deliberately, they will make the right call.

At the heart of Clinton’s speech was what should be at the heart of every political speech: policy. The American people should know what they are voting for, and Clinton showed them exactly what they’d be getting by re-electing Obama.

Another thing Clinton’s speech had? Three mentions of George W. Bush, compared to a big fat zero from three primetime speakers at the RNC.