Bill Clinton spoke to the Netroots Nation conference last night. It’s an inspired speech, done without notes and with extemporaneous digressions based on a heckler’s call.
Before he spoke, a range of Netroots Nation heroes spoke, including my hero in Congress: Brad Miller.
Miller has been awesome for blogger, for sciencebloggers in particular, and for science more generally. He’s met with the attendees at ScienceOnline in past years, and has attended this conference as a panelist and a blogger for several years. Last year, heading to a Q&A with Nancy Pelosi, we were on the elevator together. I commented that he gets to ask her questions all the time, and he replied “I’m just another blogger here.”
He also cited NCSE’s Project Steve in a Congressional hearing.
In the speech, he made clear that this doesn’t mean he’s tuned in to all of the netroots’ jargon and jokes. “I had to Google ‘teabagging’ to figure it out,” he explained.
He’s been a leader on financial oversight in congress, banging the drum to review subprime mortgages 5 years before the bubble burst. On health care, he denied that there’s any need to wait for Republicans to support a bill: “Bipartisan compromise and consensus is a nice idea, but it is not an option.”
Clinton took a similar view, noting that he was limited in the ’90s by the fact that he had 45 Republican senators. “This time there is no 45 senators, and that’s thanks to you,” he told the assembled bloggers. He himself carries printed blog posts around in his folders on health care and on the environment, relying on the thoughtful analysis of the ‘tubes. But there’s a problem: “you assume everyone has the same level of base knowledge as you do.” That means we spend time fighting over technical details and risk losing the big fight while we try to polish its corners.
“First we have to win the big argument,” which is about the need for government intervention in health insurance and about the need for collective global, federal, state, and individual actions in the case of global warming. Once you’ve got that consensus behind a bill, the detailed analysis is important to making sure it works.
But the teabaggers and the screamers at townhalls aren’t reacting to a detailed knowledge of the bill. We have to raise the level of public understanding, scaling back the wonkiness and reaching out to people who haven’t got the time or inclination to understand the difference between a public option and a co-op. Clinton’s argument: Get them on board for reform, then educate the public about the details. To win these fights, “the president needs your help, the cause needs your help.”
Doing this is good politics, too. Allowing reform to die will cripple the Obama presidency, and allow the anti-reform movement to write the history, which will block future efforts. Passing even a weak bill will bank the support for reform, and allow us to move on to debate about the details. If we pass reform, that’ll give the President and the issue a polling bump, and there will be another bump in a year or so, when people see that the bad things conservatives warn about didn’t happen and the good things promised did happen. That’ll make reform and refinement easier.
Clinton pointed out that this is a moment we’ve been waiting for across his whole political career. “I have been waiting 40 years for this moment.” The time wasn’t right in his presidency, he insisted, but “was it worth waiting 16 years to get it right? You bet it is.” He made that same argument on issues like don’t-ask-don’t-tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. He regrets backing those policies, but insists, in response to a heckler’s question, that he supported those bills because the alternative would have been worse. And why not? “Because you,” he said, pointing at the heckler, and at assembled activists in general, “couldn’t deliver me any support” for better options. But “this is a different world,” and “this policy [DADT] should be changed.”
It was a powerful speech, inspiring in its arc. Last year’s capstone speech by Van Jones emphasized that the only way we’d achieve candidate Obama’s agenda was if activists kept the energy on display there, and used that energy to build local and national backing for progressive change. Clinton brought that message back to a decidedly less enthusiastic crowd. I hope they listen. As he said, “we have to preserve this progressive majority now.” We built it, and we can’t let it fall apart.