Clinton rallies party faithful

Former president tries to turn out votes for Democrats

October 21, 2010|By Laura Vozzella, The Baltimore Sun

Bill Clinton's old campaign anthem, "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow," blared from speakers in a Baltimore park as the former president tried to rally voters Thursday for Gov. Martin O'Malley and other Democrats.

And just like the Fleetwood Mac song from the '70s, Clinton was at once forward looking and retro.

"Show up," Clinton urged a crowd of more than 1,000 in Federal Hill Park. "Claim your future. Keep your governor."

Clinton, who left office a decade ago, is something of a bridge back to the 20th century — a link to a time when he was in the White House, the country was at peace, the federal budget was balanced, the economy was humming along.

And with the nation and Clinton's party in considerably more dire straits today, Democrats across the country are asking him to take voters on a trip down memory lane.

Clinton has attended 95 campaign events for 65 candidates so far this year, according to National Public Radio's calculation Thursday. And that was before Clinton arrived — late, just like when he was in the White House — in Baltimore.

Clinton's motorcade pulled up nearly two hours late, perhaps with no less justification than when he was leader of the free world; he'd started the day campaigning in South Florida and stumped in North Carolina before landing in Baltimore.

Throngs of supporters were willing to wait. "If he ran again, I would vote for him," said Elizabeth Linski, 63, a retired church administrator who lives in Federal Hill.

Clinton's vigorous campaign schedule is hardly the norm for Oval Office alums.

Many former presidents "would do philanthropy. I'm sure they would raise money. It would be quieter," said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian who wrote a biography of George H.W. Bush. "Bill Clinton is a political rock star. When he appears, it's not going to be a quiet affair."

With President Barack Obama's job-approval rating at a new low — 44.7 percent according to the most recent Gallup poll — Clinton is widely viewed as the nation's most popular Democrat. Another Gallup poll finds that Clinton "has the potential to do more good for Democratic candidates on whose behalf he campaigns than does President Barack Obama."

Clinton's ability to rally Democrats is "modestly better" than Obama's, the poll found. And Obama is more likely than Clinton to turn off Republican and independent voters by stumping for a particular candidate.

Clinton and O'Malley have a long-standing political friendship; the former president recorded ads for the governor in 2006, and O'Malley repaid the favor with an early endorsement of Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential bid.

Which is not to say an appearance by Clinton comes with any sort of Election Day guarantee.

"Tonight, he'll go back to New York," former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., O'Malley's Republican rival, said after a morning radio debate with O'Malley. "Then it's Ehrlich vs. O'Malley and nothing else."

Clinton's status as head cheerleader, if not kingmaker, is striking considering how polarizing he was in his day. His legendary ability to charm was matched only by his power to enrage, whether with the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, controversial pardons — even the "re-homing" of the family cat, Socks, when the president took up with a younger brunette named Buddy.

"Feelings toward ex-presidents mellow over time," said Richard Benedetto, a retired White House correspondent who teaches at American University in Washington. "Obama's right in the middle of the fray right now, and Clinton's above it."

Taylor Branch, the Baltimore author who published "The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President" last year. said Democrats have good reason to remind the electorate of the Clinton years.

"He left the government with a budget surplus, which nobody believed possible," Branch said. "And every single military mission he undertook was ended with a short amount of time and in some cases with zero casualties. … We would do well to have any one of those substantive achievements on our plate now."

But having an ex-president take to the stump comes with some risk — to the sitting president, said Patricia Sykes, who teaches a course on the presidency at American University.

"It was actually a concern of the framers of the Constitution," Sykes said. "One reason they feared term limits is they would end up with too many ex-presidents. And [ Alexander] Hamilton wrote, they might wander among the people like 'discontented ghosts.' "

Sykes believes Clinton threatens to overshadow Obama not just as a political personality but with a political agenda that was far more conservative than Obama's.

"Bill Clinton famously declared, 'The era of big government is over,'" Sykes said. "He was carrying out a conservative agenda with welfare reform, NAFTA. He could be the poster boy for the tea party. … He rallies the partisans, but at the same time, he's got them somewhat stuck in the '90s."

Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.

laura.vozzella@baltsun.com

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