Bill Clinton's speech: Can he live up to all the hype?

The former president is expected to give a ringing endorsement of Barack Obama's policies tonight, in what may be the most eagerly anticipated speech of the Democratic convention.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
President Obama listens as former President Clinton speaks in the briefing room of the White House in Washington in this Dec. 10, 2010, file photo.

Is Bill Clinton's speech tonight setting up to be a bust?

By posing that question, we aren't in any way implying that the former president might deliberately sabotage President Obama during his primetime address, on the theory that an Obama loss would set up Hillary Clinton as the new leader of the Democrats going into 2016.

Nor are we expecting a repeat of the famously interminable snoozer Mr. Clinton gave at the 1988 convention (when he finally said “in closing,” the crowd cheered).

No, we're thinking mostly about expectations – which in this case, we'd argue, have gotten completely out of control. In politics, low expectations can often be a blessing in disguise, since it's easy to exceed them, while high expectations can prove hard to meet (think George W. Bush versus Al Gore in the 2000 debates). And for Clinton, expectations have been through the roof. We cannot recall a convention speech as eagerly anticipated – and ridiculously hyped – by the national news media as the Clinton speech has been over the past several days.

On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Tuesday, analyst Mark Halperin actually said: “As much buildup and anticipation as there is for Bill Clinton’s performance, I bet it’s better than we’re all thinking.” Host Joe Scarborough concurred: “Oh, he’s going to tear it up. It’s going to be amazing.”

When the news media universally expects a home run, anything less is likely to be deemed a disappointment.

You’ll recall that during the Republican National Convention last week, the speaker who got the most anticipatory buzz was tough-talking New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. In the run-up to his speech, former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean called Governor Christie “the most popular speaker in America right now at this convention or elsewhere.” MSNBC host Chris Matthews repeatedly said he was looking forward to Christie's "atty-tude." On PBS’s The Newshour, commentator Mark Shields said: “The guy I’m not going to take my eyes off is Chris Christie…. I’m fascinated by this guy.”

The result? Christie’s speech – which notably did not mention Mitt Romney for the first 17 minutes – was panned as self-serving and flat.  

Driving much of the Clinton anticipation, of course, is the history of tensions between the former and current president, dating back to Obama’s contentious 2008 primary battle with Hillary Clinton. By most accounts, the relationship between the two men since then has greatly improved, but it remains complicated – and to reporters, a source of fascination. Clinton has at various times over the past year drawn attention for comments seen as “off message” for the Obama campaign.

Tellingly, Obama aides made a point of informing reporters Tuesday that they had not yet seen a copy of Clinton’s speech (which the former president is supposedly writing largely himself). But they professed total confidence. “We are not one bit worried about what President Clinton is going to say,” deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter told reporters at a Bloomberg breakfast.

The media appear equally certain of Clinton's performance. A common refrain is that Clinton – with his keen political instincts – may actually make the case for Obama better than Obama himself.

And that may prove true. As everyone knows, Clinton is beloved by Democratic partisans, and seems to be regarded with a certain affectionate nostalgia even by Republicans, who have gone out of their way to praise him during this campaign (in part as a way of creating an unflattering comparison with Obama). Certainly, the former president has a proven ability to move audiences. But in this case, he's been given exceedingly great expectations to live up to.

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