The Clinton Speech

Bill Clinton's speech to the Democratic National Convention cemented his reputation as a great speaker with impeccable technique and mastery of "arithmetic." Photo by Joeff.In an era when political speech is scripted in sound bites, Bill Clinton's point-by-point, almost wonkish defense of President Obama's first term stands in stark contrast.

Spanning nearly 50 minutes, Clinton mounted a fact-based refutation of Republican charges against Obama about the economy, Medicare and welfare-to-work, a program he initiated during his presidency. Employing masterful technique, simple language and colorful phrases ("double down on trickle down"), Clinton kept Democratic National Convention delegates glued to his every word.

The speech won wide praise and reinforces the point that political speech can and perhaps should be more than a string of platitudes, half-truths and evasions. Facts still matter. (FactCheck.org said, "With few exceptions, we found his stats checked out.) 

Speakers who respect their audiences enough to talk with them about serious issues, not just talk at them with bromides, are very much appreciated, even in this day of the short attention span and the need for TV networks to pause for station breaks.

Clinton has earned his reputation as a great speaker. Blending his Arkansas authenticity with Southern Baptist homiletics, the former president knows how to bond with an audience and make everyone feel as if he is sitting across the table talking to them individually.

His technique is worth studying:

1. His speech had an overall architecture. Clinton understood his role was to defend the first four years of the Obama presidency, relying on his credibility as a former president who presided over a robust economic recovery, balanced the federal budget and bargained with a GOP-controlled Congress. He framed his remarks so listeners had a clear context for what he said, allowing him to range over a wide number of subjects and often delve into unusual detail without leaving listeners in the dust.

2. His tone was direct, but not confrontational.  Clinton found that balance between giving a partisan speech without coming off as a hopeless partisan. He gave a vigorous, leave-no-doubt defense of Obama policies on health care, economic recovery and investment strategy that didn't depend on savage attacks on the opposition's policies. He praised the actions of former GOP presidents, including George W. Bush. His most confrontational comment was phrased as a lighthearted jab after pointing out GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan's budget contained the same Medicare spending reductions as Ryan and Mitt Romney accused Obama of making. "It takes some brass," Clinton quipped with a smile, "to attack a guy for doing what you did."

3. He simplified his key points.  The best example in the speech came when Clinton revealed his one-word secret to achieving a balanced federal budget — "arithmetic." This simple concept allowed him to talk about his approach and to fault the approach advocated by Romney, whom Clinton said favors a $5 trillion tax cut. "The numbers just don't add up," Clinton said, reinforcing his main point deftly and indelibly.

4. He used memorable phrases.  If you want people to remember what you say, you have to say it in a memorable way. Easier to say than do, but Clinton showed off his mastery of the concept. His speech was peppered with keeper lines, such as "we're all in this together," "cooperation is better than constant conflict" and "a future of shared prosperity." Perhaps his most memorable lines came in a coda of Obama's challenge since he took office. "He inherited a deeply damaged economy. He put a floor under the crash. He 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 businesses and lots of new wealth for innovators." In a single paragraph, he painted the Obama re-election campaign narrative.

5. He used humor.  No one can accuse Clinton of being a good ol' boy, but he does know how to use a cracker barrel sense of humor to underline a key point or ease into his next riff. A transcript of his speech shows his speech was repeatedly interrupted by audience laughter, as well as applause. One of his best zingers was aimed at a GOP TV ad claiming Obama had weakened a welfare reform work rule, which he termed a "real doozy." "It's just not true," Clinton said. "But they keep on running ads claiming it. You want to know why? Their pollster said, 'We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.' Now, finally, I can say: That is true."

6. He gave meaningful examples.  Nothing sustains attention like good stories. But instead of the now-clichéd practice of telling a story about someone a candidate met on the campaign trail, Clinton offered more archetypal examples. He described Republican plans to shift more responsibility for Medicaid to individual states while reducing federal funding support. "They want to cut Medicaid by a third over the coming 10 years," Clinton said. "Of course that's going to really hurt a lot of poor kids. But that's not all. A lot of folks don't know it, but nearly two-thirds of Medicaid is spent on nursing home care for [low-income] Medicare seniors." He also noted Medicaid funds go to families with disabled children. If cuts are made, Clinton said, "I don't know what those families are going to do."

7. He ad-libbed, but stayed on message. Today's norm is to follow the lines on the teleprompter, but Clinton displayed an old-time political skill — mastery of his material so he could ad lib without going astray from his message or sidetracking his momentum. There is no substitute for knowing your stuff. Some critics complained Clinton went on too long. However, if there were encores in political speeches, the audience would have demanded more.