Mark Lennihan/AP
Former President Bill Clinton introduces Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at the Clinton Global Initiative Tuesday in New York.

Why is Mitt Romney saying nice things about Bill Clinton?

In a well received speech on foreign aid at the Clinton Global Initiative Tuesday, Mitt Romney was effusive in his praise of Bill Clinton. There could be several reasons for that.

GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said nice things today about Bill Clinton, despite the latter’s rip-roaring anti-Republican speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Speaking before the Clinton Global Initiative, Mr. Romney made a rueful reference to that address, saying, “If there’s one thing we’ve learned this election season, it’s that a few words from Bill Clinton can do any man a lot of good.”

Then he went on to praise Mr. Clinton’s post-White House career. “President Clinton has devoted himself to lifting the downtrodden around the world,” said Romney. “One of the best things that can happen to any cause, to any people, is to have Bill Clinton as its advocate. That is how needy and neglected causes have become global initiatives.”

Wow. Why the amity, considering recent political history?

The first answer is obvious: This wasn’t the time or place for renewed combat. Romney was outlining his ideas about foreign aid in front of an audience of international charitable contributors. Seriousness was the order of the day.

And Romney supplied that. His speech, during which he outlined a proposed aid program called “Prosperity Pacts,” was well received. NBC’s Garrett Haake on First Read called it “perhaps his most detailed presentation of how the United States might interact with the developing world in a Romney administration.” 

Politico’s Maggie Haberman went further, calling it “one of Romney’s best-prepared, and best-delivered, speeches of the campaign.”

The address extolled the nobility of work and the power of free enterprise to lift people out of poverty. Romney’s proposed Prosperity Pacts would entail working with the private sector to identify barriers to trade, investment, and entrepreneurship in developing nations. In return for lifting those barriers, nations would receive a US aid package focused on developing a business-friendly infrastructure and on helping small- and medium-sized businesses.

This public Romney sounded far more compassionate than the man seen on a secret video at a fundraiser describing 47 percent of Americans as people who see themselves as “victims” and are overly dependent on government aid.

“Ours is a compassionate nation,” said Romney at the Clinton Global Initiative. “We look around us and see withering suffering. Our hearts break.”

Of course, to be overly political about it – and that’s what we do – a second reason for Romney to be generous would be his campaign’s continued attempt to use Clinton as a wedge to splinter President Obama’s electoral coalition.

The Romney campaign has portrayed the Clinton presidency as a model of budget-balancing and welfare reform, as compared to the big-government Obama White House. Hence the Romney welfare ads which claim that Obama is ending Clinton’s welfare-to-work requirements. (Independent fact checkers have judged those ads to be false.)

Clinton has been vociferous in his defense of Obama, though, as his convention speech showed. In that sense, the Romney triangulation strategy isn’t working – the Big Dog has not been lured into saying new critical things about the guy who beat his wife for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

Last, this could be Romney’s “no mas” moment. Like boxer Robert Duran, who uttered that phrase to stop his 1980 championship bout with Sugar Ray Leonard, Romney may just want to avoid goading Clinton into renewed attack.

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