Bill Clinton schools House Democrats on guns, immigration and health care

February 8, 2013

Who else could name drop the author James Surowiecki, NFL coaches Jim and John Harbaugh and former president Abraham Lincoln, quote from current gross domestic product figures and the immigration patterns of Australia and Canada -- and still generally hold a room in rapt attention?

Only Bill Clinton, of course.

(Steve Marcus -- Reuters)
(Steve Marcus -- Reuters)

The former president addressed House Democrats at their annual policy retreat Friday and appeared to earn a warmer reception than President Obama, who addressed the group Thursday.

"We miss you!" a person in the crowd shouted as Clinton began his remarks.

"Sometimes, I miss you," he said in reply.

It's worth extracting extended bits of his almost 40-minute discourse, delivered extemporaneously with few prepared remarks. (Note: Reporters were ushered out of the room before Clinton took questions from his colleagues). Here are the highlights:

On the politics of selling their gun-control and immigration ideas:

"It’s important to do immigration right and as soon as possible. And I think it’s important to take some action, now that it is possible, on the issue of gun violence, but it’s important to do it right. I could go across America if we had time and tell you who survived very well voting for the assault weapons ban and the Brady Bill in ’93 and ’94, and who did not, and why."

"But I think we should assume going forward that people who disagree with us honestly in our approach will not make it quite as easy to draw the contrast by the things they do and say as they did last time. Matter of fact that’s kind of the message I got out of the House Republican meeting, it’s like, ‘We’re going to put on a happy face and be for immigration reform.’

"It’s easy to sneer at that, but depending on how we navigate troubled waters in supporting the president’s agenda, in developing what I hope you can do about how to promote jobs and innovation … It’s important to recognize that we have never, except in the searing moments of the debates in a presidential election, or that hour or so you get every year for the State of the Union, general images tend to overcome specific moments and therefore this strategy of theirs is not necessarily guaranteed to fail."

"This is a job, it is a job. And keeping it requires you do it and sell it simultaneously. And it’s normally harder in midterms, because it’s more difficult to draw a contrast in a way favorable to you and because the turnout turns down."

On implementing the health-care reform law:

"We Democrats own the health reform issue now … I personally think it was the best bill you could have passed under the circumstances given the filibuster problems in the Senate. I think you were always going to pass a health-care reform bill as soon as we had 60 votes in the Senate. We had it, we did it and there’s a lot of good things in that bill.

"But it really matters how it’s implemented. And if certain problems come up that need changing, you need to get caught trying to change them, even if you can’t pass them. Because we have to do this right."

"So I urge you not to think that that’s something you did, paid a terrible price for it in 2010, take the fox and walk away. I think it’s important and will be important long-term to balancing the budget."

On overhauling the nation's immigration laws:

"I believe that you will get immigration reform for all the reasons that everybody’s pointed out and I think it’s a good thing. But I would like to point out, I would be as forward-leaning as I could for any number of reasons, for any number of reasons. There is now a standing annual demand for 120,000 workers with computer science degrees and in spite of the fact that you have college graduates working buried in debt and waiting tables, we only produced 40,000 people with computer science degrees. … We should have immigration to help. I would give every college graduate in America that comes from another country with no security issues whatever incentive I have to stay here and work until we solve this problem.

"The irony of our electing all these children of immigrants to Congress and letting everybody tell their story is that there are now several countries, with developed economies – including Australia and Canada – that have a higher percentage of their population as new immigrants, than we do. We’re now about back to where Germany is.  … We need to work this through. And again, the details matter. But I think it is really, really important to do it and to do it right."

On the politics of gun control:

"It’s obvious as a political strategy that it’s very much in the interest of our party and the values … to try to make the midterm electorate look more like the electorate in presidential years. But I also think that we should not rely on demography alone. We should not give up on our ability, particularly in these periods when we’re not in the heat of the election, to begin a conversation with people who are not in the extremes of the candidates they voted for in the Republican Party that we could get to be for us.

"I see this whole gun issue as an opportunity, not a toxic landmine. But it depends on how you do it. One of the things that really disturbed me when I was here serving, that I saw carried forward and really manifested in 2010 in some of the elections, is that we have had too many people who consult with us and tell us how to do things, do polls that say, ‘Well here are these five things you did and four of them are really popular and this one thing is really a hot issue, so focus on one through four.’

"Now just think of that: Would there be a successful marriage who took that potential? Would there be a successful business enterprise or sports team or any other kind of relationship that is built upon trust if you took that position?"

"If you’re going to stir up a storm over health-care, over immigration, over – I hope you take up easier access to the polls as a national priority – if you do that, you have to turn into them, not away from them. You cannot assume that people, that you look at and say, ‘Oh now, that’s not my demographic,' that they have nothing to say to you."

“You stir up a storm on this health-care thing, there are still a lot of people who don’t understand it, [so] turn into it, explain it and make sure it works – don’t let it go." ...

"And the same thing is true with this gun thing. I think we ought to stay with this issue, but you can do it in a way that recognizes that there are people out there that aren’t supposed to be part of our demographic, they’re thinking about this too. … They were sick from those children who were killed. I guarantee you, a lot of people from where I grew up were asking themselves this practical question: If that young man had had to load three times as often as he did, would all those children have been killed?

"People just out in the country that make a living … they're asking questions, they’re thinking about it …  And they’re more likely to be able to figure out the answer to that than most of us who don’t live with this every day. So turn in to this. Treat these people as our friends and neighbors, people we share a country with."

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Follow Ed O'Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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