It has been less than one week since former President Bill Clinton took the stage at the Democratic National Convention, but his performance has already secured its place as one of the most policy-oriented—and likely most effective—political speeches in recent memory. His highly improvised delivery instantaneously garnered the praise of pundits and fact-checkers alike, as his deft command of statistics and policy specifics shone in stark contrast with the less intellectually honest performances of the campaign season.
Clinton’s greatest talent, his ability to break down and explain complex issues, is sorely missing from our political discourse. When politicians are not engaging in outright dissimulation, they often spout platitudes so vague as to engender no conceivable controversy. Clinton, by contrast, broke down such issues as healthcare, employment, and student loans in detailed and comprehensible language. In the words of David Brooks, he “devastatingly fill[ed]” the “policy vacuum” left by the Romney campaign.
In the days since Clinton’s speech, Obama has received a post-convention “bounce,” which is likely at least partially due to Clinton’s performance. Other politicians ought to take this as a sign that political success need not be the mere product of avoiding specifics sufficiently (or fabricating them) and hoping that the electorate likes you more than the other candidate. Indeed, Clinton has shown that a politician can get wonky and honest without losing the attention of the audience. Indeed, for all its statistics, Clinton’s speech was nevertheless moving.
The rest of the political world is taking notice, as well. In the days since Clinton’s speech, President Obama has joked that Clinton ought to be appointed the “secretary of explaining stuff,” and even candidate Mitt Romney has acknowledged that Clinton “elevate[d]” the DNC. Unfortunately, such statements aren’t a binding promise to elevate the level of our discourse. Indeed, politicians will only react to changes in the electorate’s preference. Only when voters reward intellectually honest and policy-oriented politicians at the ballot box will candidates cease the endless parade of platitudes in favor of something more substantial.
While an avoidance of issues in favor of fluff is nothing new in politics—indeed a Jefferson surrogate once accused John Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman”—this campaign season has led some commentators to label it “policy-free.”
Clinton’s approach is exemplary of the kind of honesty that our discourse needs. This is not the phony moderation adopted by so many pundits who crave a veneer of credibility at the expense of factual accuracy, but rather a robust, honest, and, yes, political defense of his party’s vision for America. We just wish there could be more of it.