President Bill Clinton electrified the crowd in Charlotte last night, and riveted viewers across the nation. His familiar, confident presence, his command of the stage, and his ability to spin a (rather long) yarn reminded us what made him effective as a candidate and as President. America still loves Bill.
His presence demonstrated that whatever rifts existed between the Obama and Clinton campaigns four years ago have long ago been mended. His key role pointed out, by contrast, the conspicuous absence of George W. Bush from his own party's gathering in Tampa -- and thus recalling to all of us just how poorly the last Republican President governed our country. And Clinton conferred on our current embattled president the memories of peace and prosperity our nation enjoyed during the Clinton Administration, and the hope that we will enjoy them again.
The irony, of course, is that President Clinton's terms were not entirely full of peace and prosperity, and were marked by more than their fair share of bitter partisan divisions, failed initiatives and disappointing compromises.
It was the Clinton Administration that repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, and paved the way for the financial shenanigans that contributed to our economic collapse. Clinton's financial advisors rolled into the private sector and ensured benefits for their corporate cronies when the crash came.
For all the talk of inclusion and equality at this convention, Clinton's Administration signed into law Don't Ask, Don't Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. We now celebrate the repeal of the first, and the Democratic Party is coming to terms with fighting the second -- but you won't hear on the Convention stage that those were achievements of the last Democratic President.
When a younger Clinton appears on video saying, "There is nothing wrong with America that can't be fixed by what's right with America," we get goosebumps. But they leave out the clip of "the era of big government is over," as Clinton adopted the rhetorical frames of Grover Norquist and the Tea Party wing of the GOP.
The Clinton team's failed effort at healthcare set back the cause and cost the Democrats control of Congress. And while he acts bewildered by the level of vitriol directed at the Oval Office's current occupant, he was the target of a witch hunt, an array of absurd conspiracy theories and, of course, impeachment.
Liberals thought of Clinton as a centrist at best, and a sell-out at worst. Yet last night, every liberal in the hall -- and many more across the country -- cheered Clinton with genuine fondness…even with passion.
It might be that the Bush years put in contrast how good the Clinton years were, or that the current Republican Party makes Clinton look out-and-out left-wing by comparison. Or it may be that times tempers our feelings, or years cause us to forget. Furthermore, Clinton's truly devoted work through the Clinton Global Initiative has been inspirational (enough so to forget about the fortune he makes in corporate speaking fees, and the defense he offers bankers and fund managers from political attacks).
For some of us, the disappointment in the reality of the Obama Administration -- the compromises, the caution -- may have taught us there will always be disappointment…and make us judge less harshly.
Or, there's another answer: Bill Clinton is just that good. He is a master at what he does. He charms you. He speaks to thousands and feels as though he's talking to you. When he leaves the stage, he can't resist the impulse to shake hands with whomever happens to be nearby. He's compulsively social. He's confidently optimistic. He's someone that makes us feel better about…everything.
President Clinton's message last night was that we are doing better, not just feeling better. Without apology and with great craft, he laid out a convincing argument that we are better off now than we were four years ago, the question upon which this election will hinge. He was the right speaker to deliver that message. He knew what "better" looked like in the 90s. Furthermore, despite his personal up-and-downs, Americans still like to hear from him.
Most of all, he was the right messenger with the right message because in a time of economic uncertainty, it helps to feel better. In an era of harsh political attacks, it strengthens you to feel better. In a season of brutal, expensive campaign ads, you sometimes need to feel better.
And maybe feeling better goes hand in hand with doing better. It's not an argument Bush, Romney or Ryan could sell. But it's the Clinton way and the bet that Team Obama is making as well.