Bill Clinton, Politics' Comeback Kid, Rides Again At The DNC

Sep 5, 2012
Originally published on September 5, 2012 5:19 pm

Bill Clinton will add yet another chapter to his storied career tonight when the former president places in nomination the name of the current president, Barack Obama.

It will be the focal point of the evening and for some, perhaps, the most newsworthy moment of the entire convention. The old Clinton-Obama feud remains an endless source of political gossip, and the convention planners are happy to have the former president's supposedly unedited and unvetted remarks as a rare source of suspense. Maybe it will help the ratings.

One thing we do know: Clinton will be a memorable part of this convention's history. He has played some role in every Democratic convention since 1972 — always close to the action and usually grabbing at least a share of the spotlight.

In fact, reviewing Clinton's exploits at the past 10 Democratic confabs offers a set of milestones for his entire career, while at the same time recapping four decades of convention history.

1972: A law student at Yale and former Rhodes scholar, Clinton attended his first national party rodeo with longish hair and facial hair. He was already living with Hillary Rodham, whom he met at law school, and they were both supporters of South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, the candidate most opposed to the Vietnam War. McGovern got the nomination, holding off a late charge by former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. McGovern would go on to lose 49 states to Richard Nixon that November, but the Clintons had established their knack for being with the nominee.

1976: Now a law professor at the University of Arkansas, a young and ambitious Bill Clinton was running for state attorney general (having already lost a bid for Congress in 1974). At the New York City convention, he joined other Southerners in backing former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, who was nominated easily and went on to win the White House. Clinton also won his race that fall.

1980: Clinton attended the second convention to nominate Carter in New York City, this time as the sitting governor of Arkansas. He had won the job in 1978, becoming the nation's youngest governor at age 32. Clinton was already in demand as a spokesman for his generation, a rising star in Arkansas and Southern politics who was making a name for himself among governors. He supported Carter against the primary challenge mounted by Sen. Edward Kennedy, even though Carter's decision to house refugees from Cuba's "Mariel Boatlift" at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas was hurting Clinton's re-election bid back home.

1984: Clinton came to the convention once again as Arkansas' sitting governor, having lost that job in 1980 (partly because of the refugees) but regaining it in 1982. The Comeback Kid was born. The nominee that year in San Francisco was Carter's former vice president, Walter Mondale, who had won Arkansas' primary and the backing of its governor. The main Mondale challenger was Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, but most of the unions and the major party officeholders stuck with Mondale. Clinton also had to be aware that Hart, still in his 40s, was a generational rival. He had no such worries about Mondale, who would lose 49 states in Ronald Reagan's re-election landslide that fall.

1988: Once again, Clinton came to the convention backing the eventual nominee, this time his colleague from the Democratic Governors Association, Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. On the second night in Atlanta, Clinton was called on to place Dukakis' name in nomination — taking more than twice his allotted time to do it. The convention hall erupted in cheers when Clinton finally said: "In closing ..." An overnight national laughingstock, he managed to turn the joke to his benefit with a deft, self-deprecating appearance on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show. Once again, Clinton was the Comeback Kid. Once again, though, his choice for president lost in November, this time to Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush.

1992: Hard as it was to imagine just four years earlier, Clinton came to the New York City convention as the party's dominating central figure. He had survived controversies over draft dodging and marital infidelities, declaring himself the Comeback Kid as he rose in the primaries, outshining a lackluster field. Ross Perot, the billionaire independent candidate, suspended his campaign during the Democratic convention, temporarily convinced the Democrats were "getting their act together." Clinton vaulted into the lead in national polls, partly because he and running mate Al Gore managed a tone-perfect convention (ending with Clinton's iconic "I still believe in a place called Hope"). The theme of generational change was underscored by the Fleetwood Mac song "Don't Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)." In November, with Perot back in the mix, the Democrats easily dispatched the incumbent Bush.

1996: After two years of stumbling over issues such as health care, President Clinton lost control of both chambers of Congress in 1994 and saw a new generation of Republican leaders rise to confront him in Washington. One was House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and the other was Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. But by convention time in 1996, Clinton had outmaneuvered Gingrich on the budget and opened a considerable lead in the polls over Dole, who had quit the Senate to be the GOP nominee. Clinton was the Comeback Kid yet again, and the Democrats were confident enough to return to Chicago, scene of the convention meltdown in 1968. This time, there was little conflict. The delegates danced "The Macarena" at every interlude, and the Clinton-Gore team got another four years. Hillary Clinton was given a featured speaking position.

2000: Upon re-election, Clinton and his administration were immediately besieged by accusations and congressional inquiries. One investigation led to another until a former White House intern accused the president of having sexual relations with her, leading to further accusations of perjury and obstruction of justice. Clinton was impeached by the House late in 1998 and acquitted by the Senate in February 1999.

Gore easily won the nomination to succeed Clinton, whom he regarded as something between a distraction and a detriment to his campaign. Clinton had a limited role at the Los Angeles convention and during the fall campaign, which Gore barely lost to Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Many experts thought a greater role for Clinton (who left office with high approval ratings) might have turned the tide in a state or two, tilting the outcome to Gore.

2004: Clinton was back in a featured role at the Boston convention that nominated Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry for president. Both Bill and Hillary, elected a senator from New York in 2000, addressed the convention on Kerry's behalf. The former president, in particular, was highly effective in making Kerry's case. But both Clintons, and Kerry himself, were upstaged by the keynote speaker: a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Illinois named Barack Obama. The 2004 convention had been a chance for Clinton to be the Comeback Kid once again, as well as a chance for Hillary Clinton to step out as a potential future candidate in 2008 or 2012. As it happened, Kerry lost that fall and set the stage for Hillary Clinton's candidacy in 2008. For some, her nomination seemed a foregone conclusion — a coronation.

2008: All the speculation about relations between the Clintons and the Obamas harks back to the battle they fought against each other in 2007 and 2008. Hillary Clinton was initially the prohibitive frontrunner, enjoying leads of 25 and 30 percentage points in the polls. But Obama concentrated on Iowa and other caucus states, where he won big, and offset the Clinton edge in mega-states like California, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. By March, Obama had a lead the Clinton camp couldn't surmount. After many bitter words and recriminations, both Clintons came around to a party unity position and endorsed Obama at the Denver convention.

There was no offer to give the vice presidential spot to Hillary Clinton, but she eventually was offered the top Cabinet job: secretary of state. In that position, she has served loyally and admirably. There have been many calls for her to join the ticket in 2012, but Vice President Joe Biden remains in place.

2012: Obama was not challenged in the Democratic primaries this year, as indeed Clinton wasn't in 1996. This is a tremendous boost for an incumbent, as is the absence of a threatening third party or independent candidate. But there lingers a sense that the Democrats never entirely healed the Obama-Clinton rift after 2008, and from time to time, Bill Clinton has said things the Obama team considered unhelpful.

For the moment, no one in the Democratic party stands to gain from losing the White House. Hillary Clinton remains a formidable potential candidate in 2016, should she choose to run in her late 60s. That's a big reason why the Obama brain trust believes it can trust her husband to continue in the party unity mode tonight.

It serves the Clintons' interest to keep the party together for next time, and it serves their interest to prevent Mitt Romney becoming an incumbent president — with the prerogatives and advantages of the White House to deploy in the next presidential cycle.

Besides, if Obama is re-elected with the fully engaged support of the Clintons and all of their political assets, it has to play to their benefit in the history books. And that clearly matters to a man who has spent so much of his life at national party conventions, practicing politics for others and for himself.

In any event, tonight's featured role gives Bill Clinton a chance to play the Comeback Kid one more time.

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