The Life of the Party

From a friend watching the Olympics: “How about that Michael Phelps? But let’s remember he didn’t win all those medals, someone else did. After all, he and I swam in public pools, built by state employees using tax dollars. He got training from the USOC, and ate food grown by the Department of Agriculture. He should play fair and share his medals with people like me, who can barely keep my head above water, let alone swim.”The note was merry and ironic. And as the games progress, we’ll be hearing a lot more of this kind of thing, because President Obama’s comment—”You didn’t build that”—is the political gift that keeps on giving.

They are now the most famous words he has said in his presidency. And oh, how he wishes they weren’t.

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There was lots of chatter this week about the decision to have Bill Clinton speak in prime time on the penultimate night of the Democratic Convention. Is it a sign of panic? Would the president give Big Dawg such a prominent spot if he wasn’t nervous? Does it gall him to ask for help from the guy who said of his 2008 candidacy, “This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen”?

But all this kind of misses the point.

The central fact of Bill Clinton is that he is really good at politics. And he has every reason to want to give a really good speech—to show he’s still got it like nobody else, to demonstrate he’s still the most beloved figure in the party, to do his wife proud. And of course to rub Mr. Obama’s nose in it.

The central fact of the Obama campaign is that they have not yet made a case for re-election. They haven’t come up with a reasoned argument in common words that can be repeated by normal people. Ask an Obama supporter to boil it all down and he’ll flail around and then say: “But Romney is awful” or “The Republicans are bad.”

The White House and the campaign have not be able to make a case for their guy. They’re just trying to make a case against the other guy.

But Mr. Clinton might actually be able to make the case, and he just may do it by making a case for the Democratic Party.

No one has talked about the Democratic Party in a long time. Democrats don’t talk about it because they feel they’re on the run, and have brand problems. The president doesn’t talk about it either, which is remarkable. You’d think he’d want to rally the troops. But he doesn’t seem to love his party all that much.

Mr. Clinton does, though, and that ol’ man, with his white hair and reading glasses, can bring you back. He can ring. He can walk you back to FDR and JFK and Bobby, he can remind you why the party exists, what it’s done, what it has always meant to do.

Because he’s doing a favor, and because he’s now a wise man of the party, he could be more or less candid about the Democrats’ recent struggles and acknowledge a few things that haven’t fully worked. And then he could be delightfully mean: He could say: “Much holds us together, not only the past but our dreams of the future. And now those low, shadowy operatives, those bundlers and billionaires with their big PAC money—those cold scoundrels are trying to steer us off course. But you can’t make progress by going backward, you can’t move forward by taking U-turns.”

It could be a barn-burner. Love him or hate him, it could wake things up. Like there’s an election going on. Which, by the way, there is.

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In Mitt Romney’s campaign—well, his supporters had high hopes for his overseas trip. It would show his size, show that he can move in the world, that he has the heft, weight and ease to be international. He didn’t do as badly as his critics say, but he probably didn’t do himself much good. When he shared his concern that London might have problems with the Olympics it seemed unguarded, which he’s always being urged to be, but it also came across as a sly little put-down of a new business by a guy who’d run an old business so well. It wouldn’t have been such a big story if the British press weren’t so hissy and pissy, but they are, and high-level visitors must operate with that in mind.

The trip to Israel, with the high-ticket fund-raiser and the casino magnate and the definitive speech that gave him no room to move as president, when presidents always need room to move this way and that, plus the unnecessary put-down of the Palestinians, which wasn’t needed to make his point—all of it seemed lacking in size, in heft. Panderish.

An old-fashioned thought: There’s something discomfiting in candidates for the American presidency going overseas during a crisis to campaign and fund-raise and make grand speeches. This was true in 2008, with Mr. Obama, and is true now. A Romney supporter might say, “But it’s summer, the campaign hasn’t even begun, it just broadens the picture.”

But the campaign has begun, the clock’s ticking.

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The oldest cliché in presidential politics is that no normal person cares about the election until after Labor Day, when the kids are back in school. It’s a cliché because it’s always been true. I’ve seen it. But I don’t think it’s true anymore, and in fact has been changing for some time.

The cliché is replaced by a new one: The screens are everywhere. There’s no place to hide from presidential candidates anymore. For a solid year they follow you from the TV monitor in the airport to the one in the taxi; you check your smartphone and they’re in the inbox telling you their plans and asking for money. You get home, turn on the TV, fire up the computer, and they’re there.

No one can hide anymore: politics will find you. And you wind up having an impression of a candidate sooner than you meant to, and it hardens into an opinion earlier than it used to. People don’t make the decision after Labor Day anymore.

They’re making their decisions now. They’ve been making them for months.

It’s showing in the polls. A NYT/CBS swing-state survey that came out this week reflects the dynamic: In the three states they polled, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, when respondents were asked who they were voting for, only 4% of them said they didn’t know. The number who said they might change their mind was in the low double digits.

In May through July, the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project did a big national poll of 10,000 likely voters, and only 5% of the properly weighted sample said they weren’t sure who they wanted to vote for.

Old-school thought says we’re waiting for the campaign to begin. But we’re in the campaign. We’re kind of getting close to the end.

So everything counts, everything is important, and when a week passes when you do yourself no good, you do yourself some bad.

It’s the way it is now.