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Bill Clinton A Little Slippery On Whether Obama Is Ready To Be Commander-in-Chief

The 42nd president of the United States spoke to the 46th Democratic National Convention for 20 minutes last night, 10 minutes more than his allotted time. But did anyone expect Bill Clinton to conclude on time? And did anyone in the crowd, even those few in the press corps firmly opposed to the Democrats, want it to end more than a minute or two earlier (as they wanted his 1988 nominating speech for Michael Dukakis to end 20 minutes earlier)? Bill Clinton was obviously having glorious fun in the spotlight for his sixth Democratic National Convention. And, more than Hillary Clinton in her speech the night before, he did the job that the Obamaites wanted the Clintons to do. Even so, when you examine his exuberant speech and try to scoop up the substance, you end up (mostly) with quicksilver.

He who frames the issues tends to determine the outcome of the election. Here's how Bill Clinton framed the issues: The next president's task is "to rebuild the American Dream and restore America's standing in the world." And John McCain, Clinton said, after hailing him for his heroism, "still embraces the extreme philosophy which has defined his party for more than 25 years, a philosophy we never had a real chance to see in action until 2001, when the Republicans finally gained control of both the White House and Congress." That is the philosophy, presumably, of the unnamed Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George Bush. (My U.S. News colleague Liz Halloran pointed out to me that Clinton never mentioned Bush 43 by name; I noticed, as I reviewed the text after Clinton spoke, that he doesn't mention the name of any Republican at all.)

Clinton is capable of providing a thoughtful analysis of domestic policy, but this was not the time and place for that. Instead, he presented a selective litany of statistics, as politicians routinely do, to show that things were wonderful when his side was in office and awful when the other side is in. And then he said simply, "America can do better than that. And Barack Obama will." Convention watchers still await anything more than a cursory description of Obama's domestic policies. Perhaps we'll get more in Invesco Field.

Clinton's assigned subject was national security, and he spent most of his time on it. He credits Obama with "a remarkable ability to inspire people," "a clear grasp of foreign policy, and a firm commitment to repair our badly strained military." His background gives him "a unique capacity" to "restore our leadership in an ever more interdependent world." Clinton applauds Obama for selecting Joe Biden for vice president (a choice he didn't make himself) and then in effect concedes that Biden brings qualities to the administration that Obama lacks. "With Joe Biden's experience and wisdom, supporting Barack Obama's proven understanding, insight, and good instincts, America will have the national security leadership we need."

And what will they do?

"Work for an America with more partners and fewer adversaries." Of course every president wants to do that. And the current president has recently found himself facing friendlier foreign leaders in France, Italy, and Germany than he did a few years ago.

"Rebuild our frayed alliance and revitalize . . . international institutions." I'm not sure our alliances are "frayed." In fact, intelligence cooperation with France, to take a notable example, has been consistently good since Sept. 11, 2001. As for aid in military efforts, with the exception of Britain and France, few nations have significant out-of-area military capacities. Some, from Australia to Estonia, punch above their demographic weight. But others, like Germany, impose rules of engagement that prevent their troops from fighting. Barack Obama in his Berlin speech called for such countries to do more; that was one part of the speech which didn't get much praise from the Europeans.

"Put us back in the forefront of the world's fight o reduce nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and to stop global warming." We are in the forefront of that fight--Obama praises the long-ongoing Nunn-Lugar programs--and the international organizations Clinton praised are in some cases more hindrance than help. As for global warming, carbon emissions have declined more in the United States than in most of the European nations that ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

"Will continue and enhance our nation's global leadership in . . . the fight against AIDS, TB and malaria." The word "enhance" is a handsome tribute (which probably went right over the heads of almost everyone in the audience) to the work George W. Bush has done in vastly expanding these programs beyond what was done in the Clinton administration.

"He will choose diplomacy first and military force as a last resort." This repeats the canard that the Bush administration rushed to war in Iraq; in fact there was much diplomacy, in the United Nations and beyond, and more than 30 allies joined us in enforcing the 18 U.N. resolutions that Iraq defied. I suppose you could argue that he should have waited longer and that therefore taking military action in March was not a "last resort."

Altogether, it's a list of things every president would do or of things that the current and previous administrations have tried to do and found that others will not cooperate.

As I was listening to Clinton's speech, without the text, I felt that he was saying that Obama was capable of being commander in chief. He does say, in the middle of the speech, "Barack Obama is ready to be president of the United States." But he's a little more slippery on commander in chief. He notes that, in 1992, he won when "the Republicans said I was too young and inexperienced to be commander in chief. Sound familiar? It didn't work in 1992, because we were on the right side of history. And it won't work in 2008, because Barack Obama is on the right side of history."

The crowd loved just about all of it, needless to say. Bill Clinton is a master of seeming to say what he doesn't exactly say.

By Michael Barone