Months ago, Mitt Romney and his campaign team adopted a curious strategy. Hoping to undermine President Obama, Republicans would elevate former President Clinton, giving him unrivaled credibility and stature, as a way of positioning him as the good Democrat, as compared to that rascally Obama.
As was clear last night in Charlotte, Romney's plan was a spectacularly bad idea.
I suspect the only person in the arena who didn't enjoy the Big Dog's tour de force was the one trying to operate the teleprompter -- Clinton had a prepared text, but he largely ignored it. The speech was nearly twice as long as it was intended to be, and long portions of it were entirely extemporaneous, which only made it more impressive.
What made Clinton's speech so exceptional? First, for all the assumptions that the public will not tolerate and has no appetite for substance, Clinton proved the cynics wrong -- his remarks were incredibly policy focused, not only in heralding Obama's underappreciated achievements, but also in taking the GOP vision apart, one issue at a time. The former president is in a league of his own when it comes to making wonky details accessible and easy to understand.
Whereas Republicans treated voters like children last week, building whole days around out-of-context quotes and shallow platitudes, Clinton spoke to Americans like adults, respecting us enough to assume we'd understand. It was a triumph for facts and reason.
Second, after a week in which the chatter has been over how to respond to (and whether to ask) the are-you-better-off-than-you-were-four-years-ago question, Clinton seemed to put the matter to rest entirely, delivering a forceful response that made the answer obvious.
In the same breath, he summarized the entire Republican message in a devastating soundbite: "We left him a total mess. He hasn't cleaned it up fast enough. So fire him and put us back in."
Third, I was struck by Clinton's ability to excite the Democratic base with a bipartisan message. He reminded the audience about the virtues of "compromise," about Obama's commitment to "constructive cooperation," and even had the convention goers cheering one of George W. Bush's more admirable successes (PEPFAR). Indeed, Clinton had more positive things to say about Bush than Republicans did.
It created a contrast with the Tampa convention that reinforced the notion that the parties are in competing, alternate universes -- one where the parties can and should work together to advance the nation's common interests, and another where compromise must be avoided at all costs. The floor in Charlotte cheered the very idea of "constructive cooperation" -- would GOP delegates have done the same?
For independent voters who say they're desperate to see more policymaking and less partisan gridlock, the message wasn't exactly subtle: Democrats agree with you.
As became obvious as Clinton's speech soared, there is no one in the Republican Party who can compete at this level, and it's only going to get worse for the challengers -- Clinton dazzled last night, but Americans will also see him in campaign ads and on the campaign trail. Bush and Cheney are hiding, but the Obama campaign will deliberately keep Clinton in the spotlight.
Team Romney helped build up Clinton's credibility. Now they're paying the price.