Bill Clinton, redeemed

The latest in a career full of political comebacks will be capped with a major address in Charlotte tonight

Published September 5, 2012 12:00PM (EDT)

Bill Clinton will take the stage in Charlotte tonight as perhaps the best-liked political figure in America, the owner of a 66 percent favorable rating – a level of popularity he last enjoyed during his presidential honeymoon in 1993. It will be a triumphant moment for Clinton, a powerful affirmation that his latest improbable political comeback is complete.

When Democrats last convened four years ago, Clinton got his turn in the spotlight, but the party he spoke to had very mixed feelings about him and his legacy. Sure, he had his share of die-hard loyalists, but Democrats had just rejected his wife in favor of Barack Obama, who had pitched his candidacy as an exciting break from the timid incrementalism of the Clintons and who had sought to minimize the historical importance of Bill’s White House years. There was also lingering bitterness from Obama supporters about the way Clinton had conducted himself during the primaries, with accusations that he’d had engaged in racial politics.

Back then, Clinton’s favorable number fell under 50 percent in some polls. But his rehabilitation these past four years has been so thorough that Obama now sees Clinton as key to his reelection hopes. The current president has spent the last year cultivating him, seeking his counsel in private, singing his praises in public, and holding up the Clinton presidency as a model for his own. With the country going through something of a Clinton renaissance, Obama stands to benefit when the former president vouches for him, which is why Clinton will be handed a big chunk of the 10:00 hour tonight to formally nominate Obama for a second term.

As I’ve written before, part of Clinton’s sky-high popularity is attributable to the Republican Party’s decision to cast him as a sympathetic character in its Obama-era narrative – the moderate, pragmatic, bipartisan Democratic president whose example has been tragically ignored by the radical socialist who now resides in the White House. After treating him like a villain for a decade-and-a-half, the GOP has essentially rolled over for Clinton since 2008, leading rank-and-file Republicans to decide for the first time ever that he’s a good guy.

At the same time, there’s been no reason for Obama or anyone around him to pick any fights with Clinton, thus making it easy for rank-and-file Democrats to forget about how irritated they were with the former president in 2008.

Thus, his speech tonight figures to carry some extra weight with the public. He’s the rare political figure with universal name recognition and broad popularity that cuts across party lines. This is the third convention of his post-presidency, but it’s the first one that Clinton will address as a truly revered former commander-in-chief. Obama figures to be the short-term beneficiary, because Clinton will be reinforcing his message.

But the Clintons themselves could be the long-term winners. One of the sub-themes of this year’s convention involves 2016, when the Democratic nomination will be open no matter who wins this fall. A number of would-be candidates are scrambling for exposure this week, addressing delegation breakfasts and tripping over one another to get on television. But not Hillary Clinton, who has no need to do any of that. She’ll be the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination if she runs, and an impressive speech by Bill will only strengthen her standing.

If you know Bill Clinton’s history, it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s maneuvered himself into this position at the age of 66. Everyone knows the famous “Comeback Kid” story, when he was rocked by multiple scandals in the early weeks of 1992, then saved his presidential candidacy with a second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary that the media interpreted as impressive. Before that, there was his political near-death experience in the early 1980s, when he was voted out as Arkansas’ governor only to win the office back two years later. Then there was his disastrous 1988 Democratic convention speech, during which delegates tuned him out and sarcastically celebrated when he said the words “In closing …” In the wake of that speech, an Arkansas reporter wrote the following:

So what does this do to Clinton's supposed future in national politics?

I think it could ruin it, and I get no joy from saying it.

His main calling card has been that he is known to political insiders as this young governor from Arkansas who gives a great speech. Now he is known to the country as the windbag governor from Arkansas who gave a God-awful speech at the convention.

But that speech didn’t kill him, just like the 1994 Republican midterm landslide didn’t end up killing his presidency, and just like the GOP’s 1998 impeachment drive failed to drive him from office or wound him politically.

So here we go again. Tonight will mark the seventh consecutive convention that Bill Clinton will be featured as a prime-time speaker. Does anyone doubt he’ll make it eight straight in 2016?

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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