I regret to inform you that former President Bill Clinton is slated to speak tonight at the Democratic National Convention. It’s easy enough to imagine a political reality where Clinton speaking in some capacity made sense; we had such a world as recently as a few years ago. But we don’t anymore. It is 2020. We are bruised from old intraparty battles, deep in a slow-motion election crisis, economically ravaged, and in a pandemic. The conventional wisdom won’t do. Obsolescence comes for us all in a variety of ways, and come it has for Clinton, a man whose irrelevance to the present moment is as extraordinary as his connection to the party remains embarrassing. Clinton’s inclusion in the DNC agenda is almost as baffling as John Kasich’s, and perhaps that’s the point: Conventions are not sensible occasions and it’s to be expected that some factions will cling to old so-called stars (and anti-choice Republicans, I guess).
But even granting the low viewership we can expect for this unusual DNC, these time slots are valuable, especially during this acute a crisis. This is no time for boilerplate puffery—though given that he is slotted to speak about “leading from the Oval Office” alongside descendants of John F. Kennedy and Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, puffery is likely.* But even when it comes to substance, we have already heard all Bill Clinton has to say. His message has not improved with time. His past actions, particularly his sexual misconduct, look worse in retrospect, not better. Clinton’s social connections to Jeffrey Epstein aren’t more incriminating than Trump’s appalling bonhomie with the dead predator, but the unsavory connection exists—even if the photos of Clinton on Epstein’s jet were taken on a 2002 trip to Africa to raise awareness about AIDS with paragons of probity like Kevin Spacey. And policy achievements he used to brag about like DOMA and welfare reform look in hindsight like catastrophic mistakes. Save for affirming some vaguely symbolic continuity between Democratic ex-presidents, Clinton’s chief value at present is his legendary charisma, but let us be frank: The man’s star power is not what it was. A DNC motivated to harness electoral energies should center present-day Democratic stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Instead, it allotted her a whole 60 seconds for a prerecorded message.
At a moment when Trump and many parts of the GOP are openly trying to steal an election—even if it means hobbling the United States Postal Service and destroying public trust in the electoral process—you know who might actually be worth hearing from? Al Gore. You know, the guy who had the election openly stolen from him. Maybe being reminded of that especially disastrous history, and what came after (a war we are still in!), could help drive home the stakes this time. (Never forget, though, the consensus that Gore—unlike Clinton—is “boring” and therefore not worth hearing from.) The DNC is arguing for the urgency of this election in other ways; it’s clear, for example, that the inclusion of Republicans like Kasich is supposed to illustrate the unique and sky-high stakes. One can take issue with the position that Republican endorsements belong at the DNC in a moment we all agree is exceptional, but it is at least an argument. There is no similar argument for Bill Clinton, just a reflex that as a living former president, he’s earned it.
When he was truly at his best, Clinton’s greatest political gift was his ability to reassure. But his ability to soothe was more charming than substantive. Americans don’t need talking down right now; we’re way past that. We need urgency and stewardship. We need historical reminders and ideas about what to do differently to avoid the same dire outcome, the kind Michelle Obama offered yesterday in her devastating and powerful address to the nation. The country is gasping for leadership, for strategies, for a pathway out of disaster—all this at a moment this particular ex-president is ill-equipped to address.
Correction, Aug. 18, 2020: Due to an editing error, this piece originally misspelled Rosalynn Carter’s first name.