Barack Obama is a great orator  – something of which we shall doubtless be reminded tonight – but Bill Clinton is the greater communicator. His speech to the Democratic convention in Charlotte last night was a masterclass. The old boy’s still got it.

Of course, it helps to be speaking in his new role – assumed upon the death of Edward Kennedy – as the party’s elder statesman. It’s easier to appear above the fray as a member of the ex-Presidents club. Most of the time, it invests you with extra gravitas. Even so, this was vintage Clinton, making by far the best – and most comprehensive – case for Obama’s re-election yet. Better, perhaps, than the argument the President will advance tonight.

As I say, Obama is a grand orator but there are times when it can seem as though he’s delivering a lecture not an address. Clinton, by contrast, is the master of delivering a fireside chat to an audience of thousands in the hall and millions at home. That’s one hell of a trick. It’s difficult to pitch a speech so it works as a rousing rallying call live in the hall and as a coherent, personal speech delivered to you watching at home. But that’s part of the Clinton magic.

Note too, however, how he praised Republicans only to bury them. This too establishes some authority, some credibility. It tells voters who like to think themselves fair-minded types that this won’t be a nakedly partisan speech full of the usual special pleading and axe-grinding. Instead, it will be a refreshingly candid appraisal of how we got to where we are and where we might consider going next.

A little generosity goes a long way. So Clinton praised Eisenhower and both Presidents Bush. He conceded that “nobody’s right all the time” and “a broken clock is right twice a day”. Democrats may not be able to get everything done by themselves but, look, the Republican party – or rather, he suggested, this Republican party – is so stuck it can only be right occasionally and even then by happenstance as much as by design. So which party do you think is better placed to address your concerns?

But he did not make the mistake of pretending Republicans can’t argue in good faith. No, he insisted, they are and we should respect their ideas by taking them seriously. That’s the only way to convince people the GOP is wrong. As he put it:

[D]id y’all watch their convention?

I did. In Tampa, the Republican argument against the president’s re-election was actually pretty simple — pretty snappy. It went something like this: We left him a total mess. He hasn’t cleaned it up fast enough. So fire him and put us back in.

Now — (cheers, applause) — but they did it well. They looked good; the sounded good. They convinced me that — (laughter) — they all love their families and their children and were grateful they’d been born in America and all that — (laughter, applause) — really, I’m not being — they did. (Laughter, applause.)

And this is important, they convinced me they were honorable people who believed what they said and they’re going to keep every commitment they’ve made. We just got to make sure the American people know what those commitments are — (cheers, applause) — because in order to look like an acceptable, reasonable, moderate alternative to President Obama, they just didn’t say very much about the ideas they’ve offered over the last two years.

Bang! That’s a boom being lowered right there. He continued:

They couldn’t because they want to the same old policies that got us in trouble in the first place. They want to cut taxes for high- income Americans, even more than President Bush did. They want to get rid of those pesky financial regulations designed to prevent another crash and prohibit future bailouts. They want to actually increase defense spending over a decade $2 trillion more than the Pentagon has requested without saying what they’ll spend it on. And they want to make enormous cuts in the rest of the budget, especially programs that help the middle class and poor children.

As another president once said, there they go again.

That’s how to do it. Next:

Now, look. Here’s the challenge he faces and the challenge all of you who support him face. I get it. I know it. I’ve been there. A lot of Americans are still angry and frustrated about this economy. If you look at the numbers, you know employment is growing, banks are beginning to lend again. And in a lot of places, housing prices are even beginning to pick up.

But too many people do not feel it yet.

I had the same thing happen in 1994 and early ‘95. We could see that the policies were working, that the economy was growing. But most people didn’t feel it yet. Thankfully, by 1996 the economy was roaring, everybody felt it, and we were halfway through the longest peacetime expansion in the history of the United States. But — (cheers, applause) — wait, wait. The difference this time is purely in the circumstances. President Obama started with a much weaker economy than I did. Listen to me, now. No president — no president, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years. (Cheers, applause.)

Now — but — (cheers, applause) — he has — he has laid the foundation for a new, modern, successful economy of shared prosperity. And if you will renew the president’s contract, you will feel it. You will feel it. (Cheers, applause.)

Empathy matters and Clinton’s always been the King of Feeling Your Pain, hasn’t he? Again, however, read between the lines and you see that Clinton’s telling you that, yes, he knows why you’re unhappy, why you’re worried by the future. He’s telling you it’s fine, even sensible, to think that way. You should be concerned because this is one hell of a mess we got ourselves into. Anyone who tells you there’s a simple, pain-free way out of this hole is kidding themselves. More importantly they’re kidding you.

I get it. You get it. I don’t need to tell you some cliched story about good people falling unfairly on hard times. I know you see through that kind of thing these days. Heard it all before, blah, blah, blah. So here’s what I’ll do: I’ll just tell you how I see it and leave you to make up your own mind. But if I know America, a lot of y’all are going to see it my way too.

So we know it’s going to be difficult but we’ve made a good start. Now we have to finish the job. But let’s not kid ourselves either. “The old economy is not coming back”. Clinton didn’t say so explicitly but he slapped down the “economic patriotism” argument that dominated much of the convention’s first night. That kind of talk, he implied, is fooling with people. And you can’t win elections by fooling with folk.

And this is the thing too: Clinton’s a great story-teller but he doesn’t treat his audience like they’re schmucks. His speech was peppered with lines like “[T]here’s something I’ve noticed lately. You probably have too.” C’mon people, we all know how it is. If I can see it you can see it too. And if you can see it politicians gotta see it as well. Otherwise we’re fools too.

Few people can give a speech stuffed with so much policy detail that still works as an actual speech. Clinton can and he can, in part, because he has a facility for explaining complicated matters in simple terms. Each time you wonder if he’s getting bogged down in detail he pulls you back, asking Why does this matter? Here’s why it’s important…

So there was chapter and verse on why the Republicans have got their opposition to healthcare reform wrong and plenty more on how the GOP’s budget plans don’t stack up and on how they’ll have to cut more than they’re admitting to you now and, well, much more besides all of this.

Clinton offered the best defence yet of Obama’s record in office; tonight the President’s job is to tell his country his plans and priorities for the next four years. I’m sure Obama’s speech will be grand; whether it can top Bubba’s is a different matter.

Tags: Americana, Bill Clinton, Democrats, International politics