DENVER—You’d really have to strain to see any trace of Bill Clinton’s residual primary-season resentments in his ecstatically received convention speech about Barack Obama. For 20 minutes, the former president spoke and, but for a few references to his wife’s primary campaign at the very beginning, used his time to talk up Obama and to take on John McCain and the G.O.P.
In particular, Clinton vouched for Obama’s national security credentials – his prime vulnerability, the G.O.P.’s eyes – arguing that Obama will work for diplomacy but that “when he cannot convert adversaries into partners, he will stand up to them.”
Perhaps more effectively than any other speaker at this convention, Clinton also went after McCain, prefacing his critiques with praise for McCain’s heroism and his willingness to stand up to his party on several high-profile issues. But, Clinton, continued, on the two most important issues of the 2008 election – the domestic economy and America’s standing around the world – “he still embraces the extreme philosophy that has defined his party for more than 25 years.”
Most importantly, Clinton even reminded the crowd that the same attacks now being leveled by the G.O.P. against Obama for his supposed inexperience were used against Clinton himself in the 1992 campaign. Ironically, Obama’s supporters made this same observation back in the primary season, when Bill Clinton seemed to question Obama’s experience and preparation for the presidency.
“It didn’t work in 1992 because we were on the right side of history,” Clinton told the convention, “and it will not work in 2008 because Barack Obama is on the right side of history.”
Clinton also singled out Joe Biden for praise at several points, a sign that the selection of the Delawarean – who forged a close and productive personal and professional relationship with both Bill and Hillary Clinton in the 1990s – has made it easier for the Clintons to fully embrace their party’s fall ticket.
Of course, there’s an old line, uttered by Democratic congressman David Obey, about Bill Clinton: If you don’t like where he stands, just wait ten minutes. His speech was powerful tonight – both in his words and, more importantly, his delivery. But it was also smart politics. It will be a lot tougher now for his critics to suggest that he’s somehow trying to sabotage Obama so that Hillary can run again in 2012. But the real test will come a month or two from now when a reporter thrusts a microphone in his face and asks him about Obama and this year’s primary season. If the past few months are any indication, he might not be able to help himself.