PHILADELPHIA - It was fine.
The DNC's Tuesday agenda featured exactly one major primetime headliner: Former President Bill Clinton, who set out to build an emotionally-rooted case on behalf of his wife, whom their party had nominated for the presidency hours earlier. In 2012, I remember sitting in the arena rafters in Charlotte, watching with helpless frustration and dismay as our 42nd president articulated the most compelling (if fact-challenged) argument for Barack Obama's re-election that I'd seen to date. He was masterful, weaving a plausible-sounding story in which Republicans were ridiculed as howling partisans, blinded by resentful and unrealistic expectations of his tale's heroic protagonist. He went full policy wonk at times, somehow pulling it off. He made people believe that Obama and company were the adults trying to fix awful inherited problems, while the GOP shrieked in nihilistic protest. I recall the sinking, intuitive feeling that the race -- which was absolutely losable for Obama at that point -- had shifted with one speech. I awarded him a B+ in my postgame analysis, which was wishful thinking. The thrust of Clinton's argument went largely unrefuted for weeks, with the glorious and fleeting exception of that first presidential debate in Denver. Bill Clinton really did help Obama win. Period. And Romney knew it, as evidenced by this memorable one-liner from his pre-election Alfred E. Smith dinner comedy routine. The best jokes have at least a kernel of truth to them:
"Campaigns can be grueling, exhausting. President Obama and I are each very lucky to have one person who is always in our corner, someone who we can lean on, and someone who is a comforting presence, without whom we wouldn't be able to go another day. I have my beautiful wife, Ann; he has Bill Clinton."
Tonight, Bill Clinton strode into the spotlight once again, this time to work his magic on behalf of his wife. He did well, I think, but didn't alter the trajectory of the race. That's not to say that Hillary won't get a boost out of Philadelphia; she very probably will, as Trump did after Cleveland. But that was not a lightning strike address. It wasn't even the best speech of the first half of the convention. Still, it was pretty clear what he was trying to do. Before the big address, Megyn Kelly asked me if I thought Bill would seek to rescue Hillary's drowning honesty numbers, which are deservedly and truly awful. My reply:
He didn't really even try. Instead, he set to work chipping away at her personal favorability gap, which is also a serious problem:
Reality check: Hillary Clinton's unfavorable ratings -- CNN 55%, Gallup 57%, CBS 56%.— Stuart Rothenberg (@StuPolitics) July 27, 2016
Clinton painted a portrait of a technocratic workhorse (committees! task forces!) who genuinely cares about people, and has channeled those sentiments into a lifetime of tireless public service. That was the whole point of his at times meandering reminiscences about their early life together. And putting a human face on a woman seen by many as power-hungry and calculating is precisely why he devoted quite a lot of time to describing Hillary as a mother. (I don't think talking about Hillary's water breaking was simply tossed in casually). Along the same lines, Chelsea will undoubtedly lay the "grandma" color on thick on Thursday night. The former president traced his timeline up into the present day -- skipping certain unhelpful bits, like the year 1998 -- and adorning Hillary's tenure at the State Department with the most impressive-sounding "achievement" language he could summon. His only partisan shots were a brief jab about mocking the disabled, and the suggestion that everything at the RNC last week was "made up." In fairness, he is something of an expert on the subject of making things up. He didn't need to go uber-partisan, as he did four years ago, because his objectives were different this time. Bill Clinton can read a poll as well as anyone else; he knows that most people already dislike Donald Trump. This was about boosting Hillary's very slight and narrowing favorability advantage, not trying to drive Trump's stratospheric unfavorability numbers any higher. His wife, he said, is serious and committed. The real deal. Believe him, he's witnessed it for decades firsthand.
Was the speech welcomed rapturously in the hall? Yes. They love him here. Did it play well on television? I bet it did. It helped her. Was it a game-changing performance that's likely to permanently alter people's perceptions of Hillary Clinton? I doubt it. She is still the same flawed, unlikable, dishonest, ethically-unfit candidate she was this morning. And if rumors and vows are to be believed, more embarrassments and ethical imbroglios may lie ahead for her. Bill Clinton hasn't lost his touch as a marvelous political communicator, but there's only so much he could work with here. His effort was admirable and solid nonetheless. But I suspect it didn't deliver the memorable political juice that his 2012 outing did.
Onward, to day three.