Bill Clinton has to walk one of the finest lines ever in American politics in his unprecedented transition from president to spouse of candidate. While he has campaigned in Iowa with Senator Hillary Clinton before, he is now hitting the trail on her behalf by himself.
“I’m not asking anyone to support Hillary because they supported me,” Bill Clinton told a crowd of several hundred at the Muscatine YMCA Tuesday afternoon. “If we had never be married and she asked me to come here today, I would do it, because she is the best qualified, best suited non-incumbent who I’ve ever had the chance to vote for in the 40 years I’ve been a voter,” said the former president, chuckling at his own age and presumably excluding his own 1996 re-election.
Recent rhetoric on the Democratic campaign trail has become increasingly contentious, but Bill Clinton offered praise of some of Hillary Clinton’s rivals early in the speech. He thanked Joe Biden and Chris Dodd for their support in the Senate during his two terms, and later, in a question and answer period, praised Dodd again for his work on the Family Medical Leave Act, “the first bill I signed.” He also praised Bill Richardson’s work as Energy Secretary and U.N. Ambassador during his administration.
His praise of his wife’s leading rivals, however, was less effusive: “Whenever Edwards or Obama has something, I read it with interest.” Clinton 42’s critical comments were aimed mainly at Bush 43, in contrast with Clinton 44. “She will cooperate with others whenever we’re able, and act alone only when there’s no alternative,” he said of U.S. foreign policy, “which is the reverse of the last seven years.”
Bill Clinton’s love of the campaign trail is still clear, and he still packs a commanding presence, which flustered the introducer to the point that she lost verbal composure twice and made the phrase “in confident leadership,” referring to his presidency, sound like “incompetent leadership.” But once he had the podium, he adopted a familiar, folksy storytelling style in “a talk, not a speech” that stuck closely to four Hillary Clinton campaign bullet points:
On domestic policy, the former president said his choice for the future president would open the doors of college education to all Americans, and noted that, ”Most of what we did was undone when I left office.”
“She can get America back to the future and back to working on big things that matter,” he said, invoking visions of a DeLorean traveling at 88 miles an hour. “We need to put science back in the hands of scientists and take it out of the hands of politicians and ideologues,” he added to applause.
Clinton also said alternative energy can be a big economic boom. “We’re supposed to be the innovation nation, and these jobs can’t get outsourced, they’re here,” he said, dropping the word ethanol as often as possible “and Hillary believes this is an adventure we ought to take together.” At this point he offered some praise of his former vice president, recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore, but said the Republican Senate had voted down the Kyoto treaty “before Al even got off the plane” in Japan. “It was the only time I had legislation defeated before I even sent it to them,” he joked.
“Aren’t you getting sick and tired of sending money to the Middle East, or even to our neighbors in Canada and Mexico?” Clinton rhetorically asked. He said oil, not NAFTA, was the main reason for a trade deficit with Mexico. The NAFTA issue came up again in the question period, and Clinton responded with a call for increased trade agreement enforcement and “a reasonable immigration law.”
“I made trade deals, but I enforced them too,” he said, adding that under the Bush administration, “enforcement is one quarter of what it was when I was president. Clinton said trade enforcement has been cut back against countries like China “because we’re scared they’ll quit loaning us money.”
Clinton said the U.S. military is terribly overextended, and if there were a crisis in another part of the world such as Korea, “Even if 100% of the American people said ‘send in the marines,’ we couldn’t do it. There’s no Marines to send.” Asked later about Hillary Clinton’s plan to end the war in Iraq, Bill Clinton said, “Her plan would set a timetable to as rapidly and safely as possible” get people out of combat. He cited the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan as a case of the dangers of leaving too fast and without a plan, adding, “She is the only person running to insist that the Pentagon have a plan for the safe withdrawal of our troops.” Clinton 42 said a Clinton 44 administration would leave a small residual force to train Iraqi troops. The remaining questions are all political, he said: “How are they going to share the power, how are they going to share the oil
The former president said Turkey would be a critical player in Middle East peace, as they are “the only moderate country with good relations with both Israel and Iran.” He said conflict between the Turks and Kurds would be disastrous, noting, “The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a country
Senator Clinton’s credentials before she took office in her own right have recently been targeted by her rivals, but Bill Clinton offered a long list of her accomplishments as first lady of Arkansas and the United states on education, preschool, health care, and foreign policy. “When I became president she represented America in 82 countries,” he said. “She played an independent role in the Irish peace process. All over the world I hear these stories. She did all that when she had no office.
Despite her unpopularity with the Republican base, and her frequency as a target in GOP debates, Bill Clinton said his wife is actually the Democrat who will be best able to work across the aisle. “She has proved she can get stuff done with Republicans,” he said, citing several bills on medical records and military benefits she co-sponsored. “They did it together and she knows that’s what you have to do and she’s proved that she can do it. She’s always been a problem solver.” He also noted her success in winning over Republican voters in rural upstate New York. George W. Bush carried 40 upstate counties in 2004 while losing statewide in New York. Senator Clinton carried 36 of those 40 counties in her 2006 re-election.
A question about the Supreme court and civil liberties drew an answer with an interesting turn of phrase: “After 9/11 the current government led by Vice President Cheney tried to get more and more power,” Clinton said, leaving it up to the listener to decide whether Cheney led the effort or the government. “If we respond to terror in a way that compromises our character, we’ve handed the terrorists a big victory,” he added.
The former president said he spent Monday night in Iowa City and made several unscheduled stops in Iowa City Tuesday morning, including the public library and a return visit to the politically famous café the Hamburg Inn. “I wish I could say we went to vote for Hillary in the Coffee Bean Caucus,” he said, “but really we were just hungry.”