Clinton outshines Kerry at unity dinner

Former President Clinton speaks at the Democratic National Committee's fund-raising dinner in Washington Thursday night.Jason Reed / Reuters
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For Democrats, there was only one problem with Thursday night’s Democratic National Committee unity dinner in Washington: one of the invited speakers totally outshone presidential candidate John Kerry.

It came as no surprise that the star of the evening was former president Bill Clinton, who gave a virtuoso performance, reminding the crowd of why he is the only Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win two terms in the White House.

Vintage Clinton
Clinton’s speech was folksy, anecdotal, full of scornful gibes at the Republicans, and rhythmic with the cadences of a Southern preacher — in other words, it was vintage Clinton. The speech was structured by the repetition of the phrase “and John Kerry said, ‘send me.’”

“In the Vietnam era,” Clinton declared, “most young men, including the president, the vice president and me, most of us could have gone to Vietnam and didn’t go. And John Kerry said, ‘send me.’”

Clinton’s voice was seeping with disdain as he mocked the Republicans.

“If people think in this election, if they think about the choices that have been made and the vision John Kerry offers, we win. Therefore they (the Republicans) have to get people to stop thinking and they’re real good at that. We already see what they do. They’ve got to turn John Kerry from a three-dimensional human being to two-dimensional cartoon. It’s what they know to do.”

Mocking the Republicans
“They love power. They know how to get it and they know how to keep it,” Clinton said, adding at another point, “They’ve always got white shirts and ties. They’re the ‘mature party,’ they’re the ‘Daddy party.’ They remind me of teenagers that got their inheritance too soon and couldn’t wait to blow it.”

Clinton referred briefly to Wednesday’s hearing of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks. “Most people said, 'Well, all of us make mistakes,’ and that’s probably true. You make enough decisions, you’re going to make a few mistakes.”  It wasn’t clear if he was referring to himself or to President Bush.

Kerry had the unenviable task of following Clinton. Kerry reverted to a rhetorical style that dogged him at some points during the primary season: slow-paced, halting and arrhythmic in delivery, with improvisations on the written text that were sometimes awkward and verbose, as when he said, “For more than 35 years I’ve been privileged to be part of the public dialogue of our country,” where his prepared text had simply said, “For more than 35 years I have fought for our country.”

'Almost a cliche'
Discussing older Americans who can’t afford to pay for prescription drugs, Kerry extemporaneously remarked, “It’s almost become a cliché.” It was a phrase that hit uncomfortably close to home since his speech had its own clichés, such as “We will not take a back seat to anyone when it comes to making America safer.”

Also on Thursday night’s unity dinner bill was former president Jimmy Carter who delivered a mild-mannered but harsh critique of Bush.

“Respected human rights leaders no longer see our country as a noble example to be emulated but as a focus of their almost universal condemnation,” Carter said. “Under the guise of public security, hundreds of innocent people here in our own country have been taken into custody and held for months without access to their families or to a lawyer. That is not the American way.”

Carter also charged that “our troops were sent to Iraq based on exaggeration, false statements and a strange and disturbing new policy of what they call preventive war.”

The unity dinner, which raised $11 million for the Democratic National Committee, was a chance for an audience of 1,800 activists to contrast the only two Democrats to be elected president since 1964, Carter and Clinton, with the man who hopes this November to emulate their success.

Building from a minority
Despite their victories over Republicans Gerald Ford, George Bush and Bob Dole, it is worth recalling that in their four presidential races, Carter and Clinton won an average of 46 percent of the popular vote. Even at their most successful, the Democrats have for the past 30 years been building from a base of a minority of the electorate.

Carter was the last Democrat to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote and he did that by a thin margin nearly 30 years ago.

Equally as significant, the Electoral College combination that brought success to both Carter in 1976 and Clinton in 1992 and 1996 had a Southern anchor. Carter carried 13 Southern and border states (even Texas), while Clinton carried seven in both 1992 and in 1996.

Kerry has already said it is mathematically possible for him to win the White House without carrying any Southern states.

He’s correct, of course, but trying to reach the requisite 270 electoral votes without any from the South would make his job all the more difficult. If he reverts to Thursday night’s rhetorical style it will compound his difficulty.