Taken together, the speeches by Bill and Hillary Clinton eventually gave Barack Obama everything he wanted from them. Their support came late, and the delay and equivocation have surely exacted a price: the sagging momentum of Obama’s campaign of late owes something to the Clintons’ ongoing grievances. Finally, though, they gave him the backing he needed.
Both of the Clintons gave outstanding, memorable speeches, and they formed two parts of a single whole. As I said yesterday, Hillary’s attack on the Bush administration and John McCain—underlining what was at stake in this election—carried sustained force and conviction. In the plainest terms, she told her supporters to vote for Obama. Up to then, many were still wavering, and some were determined to abstain or worse. For the first time, she denied them permission to do so. Nonetheless, the case she made rested on what was wrong with Bush and McCain, rather than on what was right about the Democratic nominee. She held something back.
The next night, Bill made good the deficit. People say he is still angry over the way the Obama campaign accused him of exploiting race, impugned his record as president (not as “transformative” as Ronald Reagan), and disrespected his wife (failing even to consult her on the vice-presidential nomination). If those really are his feelings, he disguised them brilliantly. There was no trace of recrimination, and his finely crafted speech dwelt almost exclusively on Obama’s fitness for office. In one surprising stroke, he even congratulated Obama on his choice of Joe Biden as running-mate—a consolation prize Hillary seems to have wanted. Obama’s first big decision, Bill said, was to nominate his vice-president, “and he hit it out of the park.” That was extraordinary.
These excellent performances do somewhat diminish the new team. Biden’s speech, following quickly after Bill’s, was lame by comparison. The delivery was faltering, and the substance routine. Yes, Biden showed he has the common touch, which many find lacking in Obama—but if the electorate sees Barack as aloof and cerebral, choosing a likeable deputy does not put that right. And the fact that the Clintons so dominated the first three days of the convention, making it their show as much as Obama’s, was less than ideal.
Still, unless they swerve again over the coming weeks, the Clintons cannot be accused of letting the party down. This serves their interests, of course: it keeps alive Hillary’s hopes of another run at the presidency should Obama lose in November, and it restores Bill’s own standing in the party. Whatever their motives, however, and despite the fact that the Clintons are a hard act to follow, Obama must be pleased. They most likely succeeded, after all, in uniting the party around him. Better late than never.