WASHINGTON — Bill Clinton, out of the Oval Office for nearly a decade and once considered a political liability, is campaigning for Democratic candidates at a pace no one can match, drawing big crowds and going to states that President Barack Obama avoids.
If the Republican wave on Nov. 2 ends up a bit weaker than many now predict, at least some of the credit will have to go to the former president, the most sought-after surrogate for dozens of anxious Democratic congressional and gubernatorial nominees.
Always an intuitive campaigner who could slap backs and dissect policy with equal ease, Clinton has another appealing quality in these economic hard times: He left office amid high employment and a government surplus. Some people attending his rallies wear buttons saying “I miss peace, prosperity and Clinton.”
Clinton’s staff says he has campaigned this year for more than 65 candidates at nearly 100 events. Many of the appearances took place in the past few weeks, when Clinton slowed his work on charitable projects, such as fighting AIDS and malaria, to focus on the election’s final sprint.
The pace would tax anyone, not just a 64-year-old who had major heart surgery in 2004. Consider the past few days.
Clinton drew 5,000 people to an event Sunday in San Jose for California’s gubernatorial and congressional Democrats, two days after speaking to 6,000 people at UCLA. On Monday afternoon, it was 2,000 people in Everett, Wash., for Sen. Patty Murray, and another 2,000 voters that night in Denver on behalf of Sen. Michael Bennet.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Clinton attended large and small events in the Florida cities of St. Petersburg, Orlando and Miami for several Democratic candidates. On Thursday he headed to Asheville, N.C., to campaign for Rep. Heath Shuler in a swing district where Obama is unlikely to venture. Then he went north to Maryland to help Gov. Martin O’Malley.
And he makes the message personal.
“This man has earned the right to be re-elected,” Clinton told several hundred people at an outdoor rally for Shuler. “All of the things they say in the cartoon attacks don’t apply to him. He’s represented you faithfully.”
Obama, of course, can draw bigger crowds when he chooses, such as the 35,000 people who recently turned out at Ohio State University. But he’s also burdened, like any sitting president, with tough and controversial decisions.
Clinton has had a decade for voters to forget some of his less popular actions. That makes him hugely attractive to Democrats seeking election next month. A recent Gallup poll found that voters of all stripes – Democrats, Republicans and independents – are more likely to be swayed by Clinton’s endorsements than by Obama’s.
Given Clinton’s all-out defense of Obama’s policies and the lawmakers who voted for them, it’s easy to forget that the two men have never been close. Indeed, they feuded during the long 2008 presidential primary, in which Obama eventually defeated Clinton’s wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In New Hampshire, ahead of its primary, a red-faced Bill Clinton said Obama’s claims about foreseeing the Iraq war’s difficulties were “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.” When Obama won the South Carolina primary, the ex-president testily noted that Jesse Jackson had won it in 1984 and 1988. The remark angered many black voters and officials, who saw it as an effort to belittle Obama.
Obama, meanwhile, accused the Clintons of double-teaming him. “I can’t tell who I’m running against sometimes,” he said in one debate.
Hillary Clinton is now Obama’s secretary of state, and if her husband nurses resentments, he hides it well. In speeches that often exceed 40 minutes, he gives detailed defenses of the new health care law, last year’s economic stimulus plan and other Obama policies under fierce Republican attacks. Echoing Obama, Clinton warns that Republicans will take the nation backward if they regain control of Congress.
“I am pleading with you,” he told the UCLA crowd. “Any college student in the state of California that doesn’t vote in this election is committing malpractice on your own future.”
He likens the tea party and its supporters to 19th century politicians. “Some of these positions people haven’t held for 110 years,” Clinton said in Denver.
In Maryland, he asked, “Why in the world would anybody think about making a change?” Then he added: “We may not be out of the hole yet, but it was a real deep hole. At least we’ve stopped digging.”
At the event for Murray, he said, “Don’t be fooled, don’t be played and don’t stay home.”
Nimo Hussein, 32, a registered nurse in the audience, told The Associated Press: “People love Bill Clinton.”
It wasn’t always so. His 1998 impeachment following the Monica Lewinsky scandal left him few Democratic friends for a time. His vice president, Al Gore, ran for president in 2000 by distancing himself from Clinton, a decision some say was fatal.
That seems long ago. Clinton now cannot accommodate all the candidates begging for his help.
“Nobody deconstructs the Republicans’ arguments better than Bill Clinton,” said Joel Johnson, a Washington lobbyist who was a top Clinton White House aide. “He just tears them apart in a way that is without malice or meanness. He does that with such an infectious sense of joy that it has the effect of really inspiring the base voters.”
Democrats from the redwood forests to the Gulf stream waters are counting on Clinton to keep them from drowning on Nov. 2.
“When people see Bill Clinton,” said Duke University political scientist David Rohde, “they think of better days.”