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Obama missed chance to seal victory over Romney

By Alex Castellanos, CNN Contributor
September 16, 2012 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says Bill Clinton helped Barack Obama, but Obama could have gained more by following Clinton's example.
Alex Castellanos says Bill Clinton helped Barack Obama, but Obama could have gained more by following Clinton's example.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Alex Castellanos: Bill Clinton showed that appeal of "New Democrat" ideas is still strong
  • He says President Obama missed opportunity to position himself with Clinton
  • The race remains close, though Obama has an edge given the electoral map, Castellanos says
  • He says an unexpected comment or event could make a big difference

Editor's note: Alex Castellanos, a CNN contributor, is a Republican consultant and the co-founder of Purple Strategies. Follow him on Twitter: @alexcast.

(CNN) -- Sixteen years ago, though it seems less, the silver-haired author of the best speech at the Democratic convention declared "the era of big government is over."

Twelve years later, the next Democratic president, Barack Obama, declared that the era of big government being over was over.

One week ago in Charlotte, North Carolina, Bill Clinton returned to reclaim both the leadership of his party and his legacy.

Alex Castellanos
Alex Castellanos

Clinton danced gracefully in his natural environment, a stage surrounded by 20,000 adulators. His 50-minute performance was a master class in practical politics.

"Listen to me now ... listen to this," professor Clinton repeatedly schooled his audience. The good old boy patiently showed a convention hall of energetic left-wingers how to move back to the middle and win.

Once before, Clinton had rescued his party from its excesses. When he came to national office, the big-spending Democratic Party of the New Deal, the Great Society and George McGovern had exhausted its fiscal credibility. Clinton inherited a party that his country could not trust with its checkbook.

The baby-boomer governor changed that. As the late David Broder of The Washington Post wrote, "Clinton pirouetted and placed himself at the head of the fiscal responsibility parade."

Opinion: How Bill Clinton ad-libs his way to a winning speech

Clinton and his talented team, notably Paul Begala and James Carville, now CNN contributors, understood, "It's the economy, stupid." They prided themselves on their balanced budgets, with little gratitude for the GOP Congress that cut capital gains taxes in 1997 and helped produce four of them.

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They embraced middle-class tax cuts, at least rhetorically. The New Democrats were born and, politically, it worked: The populist Democrat from Arkansas transformed his party from a festival of limousine liberals to a home for pickup-truck-driving, balanced-budget-loving, working people. After years in the liberal wilderness, Democrats re-earned the chance to govern. They relearned how to win.

Barack Obama has ditched all that.

From the moment he took office, on the economic issues the country cares about, Obama has governed as an old Democrat, not a new one. As former Sen. Fred Thompson said in 2008, "He's George McGovern without the experience." Obama has driven his party back in time to top-down, industrial-age solutions and spending that does not end.

The opening day of the Charlotte convention reflected Obama's old Democratic Party.

The theme was "more free stuff for everybody!"

Want to start a business? Democrats laughed at the idea that a young man or woman might borrow money from his or her parents. The consensus at this convention was that they were entitled to take money from other people's parents. Delegates cheered at opportunities to take profits and property from the remaining, benighted, few Americans who still pay taxes instead of take taxes.

In Charlotte, people who would never break into someone's home and take what was not theirs celebrated a government that uses tax law to do it for them. Then Clinton took the stage and, in a temporary expression of sanity, lectured Democrats about overindulging. You have to appreciate the irony in that.

Clinton said, "Don't you ever forget, when you hear them talking about this, that Republican economic policies quadrupled the national debt before I took office, in the 12 years before I took office, and doubled the debt in the eight years after I left, because it defied arithmetic. President Obama's plan cuts the debt."

The comparison was poignant: If Obama had similarly embraced Simpson-Bowles or any kind of bold deficit reduction in his remarks the following night, he would be wiping the floor with the Romney campaign.

Was Clinton's speech honest? Slick Willie's great talent is his artistry, not his accuracy. But Clinton can count electoral votes. He knows how to win.

Difficult path to victory without Ohio  Difficult path to victory without Ohio
Difficult path to victory without OhioDifficult path to victory without Ohio

The electoral map adjacent, illustrating what Romney must do to win without Ohio, is daunting for the Republican spear-carrier.

Today, Romney would probably lose New Hampshire, Iowa and New Mexico. He lags in Ohio.

Take those states away and Romney has to bat a thousand in an unforgiving chain of swing states. Prediction website Intrade now puts the odds of victory at 61% for Obama to 38% for Romney. It is hard to argue that Obama does not have an edge at this point.

After Clinton spoke, I concluded on CNN, "This will be the moment that probably re-elected Barack Obama." Hyperbole? Perhaps. But if you think Obama is slightly favored to win this election, as I do, you might ask: What has been the best moment of Obama's campaign? It wasn't the candidate's speech at the convention. It was Bubba pointing his finger, biting his lower lip and rewriting the campaign plan.

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Clinton didn't just give Obama an endorsement, he gave the Obama campaign a narrative. Before Clinton spoke, no one in his or her right mind had a rationale for keeping Obama as president. After he spoke, they did.

Trust me, Clinton said seductively, give the kid another chance. Tomorrow's gonna be better. Like Moses, Old Bill told us the greatest risk would be stopping now, in the desert, and turning back from the Promised Land. Over 2000 years, that's proved a powerful narrative.

But Clinton didn't just try to rebrand the Democrats as the party of economic responsibility. He tried to rebrand it as his Democratic Party. High above the Charlotte convention center, Bill planted a Clinton flag.

There is a war going on for the soul of the Democratic Party. Obama's differences with Clinton aren't just personal. Is the 2016 Democratic Party going to reflect Wednesday night, Bill Clinton and New Democrats? Or Thursday night, Barack Obama and Old Liberals?

Hillary Clinton would like to know. She is waiting in the wings.

Joe Biden's speech was, as always, an adventure.

Watching Biden speak refreshes memories of George W. Bush crossing the oratorical high wire. We hold our breath when Biden talks, awaiting the possibility of an exciting rhetorical plunge from a great height to concrete.

Biden made it all the way across, performing with sincerity and dignity. He demonstrated the gift he gives his president and his country; a fierce, bulldog-like loyalty. Biden told us of his president's courage, which was evident: Obama gave Biden a live microphone.

Biden gave a better speech than his boss and advanced an important argument: Obama is the Man of Steel, Biden told us, a narrative introduced the previous night by Obama's former chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Team Obama must have research telling them it is hard for the Romney campaign to trump Obama's commander in chief credential. Within a week, four American diplomatic personnel would be lost in Benghazi, Libya. Biden and Emanuel were prescient.

The spiritual and intellectual poverty of the closing speech of the convention must have been a disappointment, even for Team Obama.

Whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, in a time of crisis, you want your president to lead .

Obama seemed incapable of it. At his best, the Secretariat of the '08 campaign performed like an old and tired contender. At his worst, he appealed to the worst in us, continuing to polarize us for his own political gain.

When a contributor is on air at CNN, viewing a small screen hung under a TV camera, it is hard to appreciate the big-monitor experience most Americans enjoy in their living rooms, bedrooms or man caves. A few days after Charlotte, at home, I finally saw the Obama speech on my big screen. I was surprised at what I had missed.

Obama's eyes, during his moment in the light, were heavy and vacant. The Believer did not believe. He was reading his speech with a touch of sadness. I was struck that Obama thought less of himself for stooping to this characterless politics, something he once imagined beneath him. Four years ago, all of us, especially the speaker, hoped he could be a better man.

As a fan of political theater, I've said that an Obama speech is like sex: The worst ever is still excellent. After Thursday night, I've changed my mind. Sex is better, perhaps because it is less frequent.

In a country where nearly 60% of Americans believe we are headed in the wrong direction, it doesn't take a Harvard lawyer, Republican or Democrat, to see what a winning campaign looks like: It offers a new direction. Obama proposed none of that.

After Clinton's speech, I commented on CNN that "I would recommend to my friend Paul (Begala) here, tonight when everybody leaves, lock the doors. You don't have to come back tomorrow. This convention is done." Team Obama may wish they had done so. In the short term, Obama energized his base and reminded Americans what they liked about him four years ago. Any modest bounce Obama enjoys from this convention, however, will be not because he converted a new audience but because he revved up his dispirited voters.

With his little speech about nothing, Obama made the case for a new president better than Mitt Romney did.

Politics is about opportunities taken and moments of greatness missed.

In Charlotte, Clinton passed the New Democrat cup to Obama. Why did the Old Democrat forsake him, skipping the opportunity to take on government spending and pick up Clinton voters in the center?

Opinion: Three hurdles for Obama, Romney

A candidate who cannot conceivably get elected runs against an opponent who can't possibly beat him.
Alex Castellanos

No doubt, there is an animosity between the two men and Obama wants his own time in the sun, not Clinton's reflected glory. The obvious reason, however, may be that the two men don't agree on government.

Obama, ever the romantic community-organizer and liberal dreamer, has a more European worldview than the pragmatic Arkansas governor who had run a state before he became president. Clinton's endorsement is valuable to this president precisely because, on economics, Obama is much further left than his Democratic predecessor.

Even when saying nothing, Obama could not resist boasting, of all things, about his modesty.

Obama told us, "I'm far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, 'I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.'"

This man of limited accomplishment told us he was as humble as Abraham Lincoln.

For a moment, I feared he would also ask, "Isn't Michelle's husband terrific?"

I've worked in politics nearly 40 years.

On rare occasions, I've seen races like this one: A candidate who cannot conceivably get elected runs against an opponent who can't possibly beat him. The contest reduces itself to a tug-of-war. Moving an inch is gaining a mile. Eventually, in these campaigns, something yields.

This tug-of-war election has been stock-still since the primaries. Obama has made no case why he should be president the next four years. Romney has not explained why he would be better. Big, antipodal views still strain against each other, unyielding. We are torn between two incompatible visions of what this country should be.

This tension is becoming unsustainable. There is a growing chance the rope breaks. It may be when one candidate rises to his feet in debate and gives us the 2012 iteration of Reagan's, "I'm paying for this microphone!" Or when a campaign, afraid of falling behind, speaks rashly. Or when an international crisis produces a rallying effect benefiting the incumbent, even when it is the president's own vacillation that has emboldened our enemies.

This is how earthquakes happen, when nothing moves and tension builds. Then, suddenly, tectonic plates collide.

In this stalemate between the movable object and the resistible force, something soon has to give.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alex Castellanos.

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