Several months ago, the Romney campaign made an interesting concession. As the Republicans saw it, they could use Bill Clinton to their advantage, trying to point to imaginary differences between him and President Obama, in the hopes of making Obama seem less moderate. The move, Romney's advisors said, was "devised as a trick to drive a wedge."
In practice, Republican praise for Clinton -- an unimaginable development in the 1990s -- raised the former president's stature, credibility, and reliability. In the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Bill Clinton is the most popular political figure in America -- with a favorability rating 21 points higher than it was a decade ago.
And now that Mitt Romney and the GOP have boosted Clinton's reputation, Team Obama is taking full advantage.
For those who can't watch clips online, Clinton says in the ad, "This election to me is about which candidate is more likely to return us to full employment. This is a clear choice. The Republican plan is to cut more taxes on upper income people and go back to deregulation. That's what got us in trouble in the first place. President Obama has a plan to rebuild America from the ground up, investing in innovation, education, and job training. It only works if there is a strong middle class. That's what happened when I was president. We need to keep going with his plan."
The ad, called "Clear Choice," will air in New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, and Nevada. Rumor has it, the spot did awfully well with focus groups. The spot also begins airing as Clinton gears up for a high-profile role at the Democratic National Convention in two weeks.
In terms of the larger context, there are a couple of angles to keep in mind.
The first is that Romney's plan was a mistake. By trying to drive a wedge between two political leaders who agree on practically everything, Republicans, as a practical matter, only boosted Clinton's popularity to new heights. The Democrat the right loved to hate -- does everyone remember just how intense the GOP's hate-filled rage towards Clinton was in the '90s? -- has become the former president the American mainstream loves to love.
So, now that Romney has helped elevate Clinton, even as part of the ridiculous welfare smear, the Big Dog's words have that much more salience.
The second is a more subtle argument about the economy in general. Greg Sargent had a sharp take on this today.
In the spot, Clinton focuses on the future and on the past before Obama was president. The contrast it draws is between Clinton and Obama's approach on the one hand and Bush's and Romney's approach on the other. As Steve Kornacki notes, the ad plays the Bush card without saying his name. The ad also draws this contrast without discussing what has happened under Obama. Clinton carefully says Obama has "a plan" and that we "need to keep going with his plan." This stops just short of saying the recovery is underway, but it hints that we're moving forward and promises recovery in the future, just as happened under Clinton.
In other words, the ad rebuts one key part of Romney's argument (Obama doesn't have the answer; I do) by reframing this as a choice between the Clinton and Bush approach. But it doesn't directly take on the other part of Romney's argument (you have already shown your approach has failed).
There's ample polling data that not only shows Americans frustrated with the economy, but widespread annoyance when confronted with arguments that the economy isn't that bad anymore. The mainstream still believes the status quo stinks and doesn't like being told otherwise.
But that's partly what makes Clinton's message clever: he's not saying things are fine; he's saying things will get better so long as we don't go backwards and adopt the Romney/Bush policies.
You may be wholly dissatisfied, the ad tells voters, but you sure as hell don't want to embrace the agenda that got us into trouble in the first place.