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Bill Clinton Manages to Trust America to Listen to 46 Minutes of Policy

Before I get my head chopped off, let me start with the caveat that a speech is not reliable, and that I stand behind this entire post about the platform debacle as a metaphor (nobody will give a damn about the platform when they finish breaking down the stage of the Time Warner Center in Charlotte) for how Democrats end up governing.

But Bill Clinton gave a heck of a speech tonight. I’d put up the transcript, but it’s only about 35% of the speech; the vast majority of it came off the hip. What’s incredible about this is that Clinton didn’t fill the rest of that time by telling old war stories; he filled it with a fairly detailed set of policy arguments, about Medicare, Medicaid, the economy, taxes, the deficit (I personally could have done without that one), jobs, energy, and pretty much everything in the domestic portfolio of a modern President, with distinct lists of variances between the two candidates on these issues. I joked on Twitter that policy bloggers will be going back to their old posts and collecting links, so they can adorn their Clinton speech posts with lines like “As I mentioned a couple weeks ago…”

Bill Clinton is one of the few politicians that bothers to try and tell the public what is happening in their lives and how that connects to what happens in Washington. It’s shaded to his advantage, like approximately every politician ever. And I don’t agree with all of it – he tried to peddle some structural unemployment stuff that economists agree on all sides pretty much agree with.

But this is a deficit in our politics. The public has a very low political literacy, and one of the reasons for that, despite a dysfunctional media, is that politicians don’t bother to take the time to explain the consequences of their policies. This leaves them reaching for their own trusted sources, and open to the worst kinds of distortions. Clinton, in his down-home kind of way, tried to reel back those distortions. He fact-checked the Republicans on welfare. He fact-checked them on Medicare – and in so doing, downplayed a bit the potential effects of cutting provider payments on access to hospitals and doctors, but SO WHAT? I’m tired of this belief that we cannot cut pay for vastly overpaid health care providers. Anyway, the providers voluntarily agreed to the cuts, because they knew they’d get more customers in the bargain. And Medicare Advantage lost some of its subsidies and now has more subscribers at a lower cost. Clinton got into that.

He also said something I’ve been screaming about, the fact that, if Romney-Ryan give back the $716 billion to subsidies for providers and insurance companies, then Medicare goes insolvent by 2016. This is a very nuanced argument that no Democratic politician has picked up on really at all. It happens to be true. And the consequences are that Romney and Ryan would have to make cuts to current seniors on Medicare, and the only ones they’ve outlined would be explicit cuts to benefits.

And Clinton also laid forth on Medicaid, in very clear language, explaining the importance of the program and the big difference between the two parties on this, with Democrats wanting to expand it as part of the Affordable Care Act, and Republicans wanting to block grant it and cut it by at least one-third.

The overriding theme was We’re in this Together versus You’re On Your Own, which is a bite from Jared Bernstein’s policy book from 2008. And he wove that into his story, in often credible ways, of the whole of domestic policy.

More important than anything, Clinton acknowledged the pain that people feel in this economy. There was a danger for Democrats of being out of touch in this convention. They hadn’t channeled the anger and frustration people feel about an economy that has sold them out. Elizabeth Warren actually did a great job of this tonight; more on that in the morning. But Clinton brought this to a personal level. You don’t have to agree with his justification for this, but here it is:

I like the argument for President Obama’s re-election a lot better. He inherited a deeply damaged economy, put a floor under the crash, began the long hard road to recovery, and laid the foundation for a modern, more well-balanced economy that will produce millions of good new jobs, vibrant new businesses, and lots of new wealth for the innovators […]

I understand the challenge we face. I know many Americans are still angry and frustrated with the economy. Though employment is growing, banks are beginning to lend and even housing prices are picking up a bit, too many people don’t feel it.

I experienced the same thing in 1994 and early 1995. Our policies were working and the economy was growing but most people didn’t feel it yet. By 1996, the economy was roaring, halfway through the longest peacetime expansion in American history.

President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did. No President – not me or any of my predecessors could have repaired all the damage in just four years. But conditions are improving and if you’ll renew the President’s contract you will feel it.

That’s the prepared remarks; he added something about how “whether you believe this will decide who wins the election.”

Bill Clinton’s not perfect, and the person he spent 46 minutes nominating is not perfect. That justification isn’t perfect – there are in fact ways to have spurred better economic performance than we got, for now and for the future. Hint: it has to do with the banks.

And I could point-by-point a lot more. But I want to say this. The legacy of clear, explanatory information about policy, about what people sent to Washington do, how they do it, and what it means for you, should not end with Bill Clinton. It’s important for engaging people with their government. When I went to Wisconsin for the protests up there, the most notable thing I saw was charts. Lots and lots of charts, all about the rigged economy, posted all around the Capitol in Madison. We need to hear more of this.

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David Dayen

David Dayen