Former president Clinton on mission to rescue Democratic Party in fall elections

As one of the most popular politicians in the nation, Clinton is using his credibility to help his party.
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 2010; 12:01 AM

Bill Clinton is baffled. The former president's friends say he is in disbelief that in the closing weeks of the midterm campaigns Democrats have failed to articulate a coherent message on the economy and, worse, have allowed themselves to become "human pinatas."

So Clinton is deploying himself on a last-ditch, dawn-to-dusk sprint to rescue his beleaguered party. And as the only president in modern times who has balanced the federal budget, he is leveraging his credibility to become one of the most fierce defenders of President Obama's economic policies.

"To hear the Republicans tell it, from the second President Obama took his hand off the Bible taking the oath of office, everything that happened after that was his fault," Clinton said this week at a campaign rally for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). "I'd like to see any of you get behind a locomotive going straight downhill at 200 miles an hour and stop it in 10 seconds."

If there was any doubt that Clinton remains the Democratic Party's North Star, it has been erased over the past few weeks as he has packed legions of supporters into basketball arenas, college quads and airport hangars. He is the Democrats' most in-demand messenger and, unlike Obama, he is summoned everywhere - no matter how hostile the territory.

By Election Day, Clinton will have traveled to more than 100 events, including one Thursday in Maryland, where he appeared with Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Some Democrats are troubled that Clinton, who left office a decade ago, is a bigger draw than Obama and the party's current leaders. "Bill Clinton is not going to live forever, and it's time for the Democratic Party to develop other voices," said Bob Rucker, a journalism profressor, as he left a recent Clinton rally at San Jose State University.

But even with his party out of favor, polls show Clinton is among the most popular national political figures in the country. His newfound popularity among Republicans is a notable reversal from 16 years ago - when, two years into his presidency, a GOP resurgence cost Democrats both chambers of Congress.

"Look, folks, I've seen this movie before, in 1994," Clinton said at the rally in Everett, Wash. "I called the president the other day, and I said: 'Relax. They haven't said anything about you they didn't say about me. The only reason they're being nice to me right now is because I can't run for anything any more.' "

'Keep on being mad'

Clinton's pitch is rooted in empathy and delivered off the cuff. In Everett, he laid out what he said is the Republican argument: "I know you're angry. I know you're scared. . . . So let's make this a referendum on everything that's bothering you about life right now - take everything that's not working right now and put Patty Murray's face on it and make it a referendum."

"It is not a referendum. It. Is. A. Choice," he continued, pausing between each word for emphasis, "a choice between two different sets of ideas."

Clinton exhorted the crowd to "keep on being mad. But concentrate your anger so that it clarifies your judgment instead of clouding it. . . . The worst thing you can do right now is bring back the shovel brigade to start digging the hole again."

No other Democrat has so consistently given voice to the mood of this year's volatile, angsty electorate. Where other politicians speak of the housing crisis in staid terms - "Mortgages? I understand homes are underwater," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a debate last week - Clinton talks about bad mortgages as if his family were shackled with one.

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