The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bill Clinton talks inequality in West Virginia, with barely a mention of the 2016 primary

Not much campaign talk this time from the former president. (Jason Reed/Reuters)
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CHARLESTON, W.V. -- Bill Clinton returned to the campaign trail with a sold-out crowd, sparse talk of his wife's presidential campaign, and an apology.

"I told somebody the other night, I'm not sure if I'm good at this anymore," Clinton told more than 2,000 West Virginia Democrats at the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner. He rasped a little as he compared himself to "an old horse,"  high-ticket donors looked up from their meals and a smaller crowd watched from the stands of Charleston's civic center. As he thanked the party for delivering a landslide 2008 primary win for then-Senator Hillary Clinton, he acknowledged its recent decline.

"You voted for me in 1992 and 1996," he said. "You haven't voted Democratic since. I want to change that."

West Virginia's Democrats, who ruled the state for generations, have looked forward to a Clinton restoration almost since the moment Barack Obama put it on hold. In 2014, despite distancing themselves from the Obama's administration's environmental policies, local Democrats lost a Senate seat, a House seat, and an 83-year old grip on the state legislature. Before Clinton spoke, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) argued that Republicans were "masters at dividing us" and preventing the party for telling their story.

Clinton nodded at that reality by never mentioning Obama's name. "The administration in Washington doesn't get as much credit as they deserve for preventing a great depression," he said, in a rare moment of recognition that a Democrat occupied the White House. The room was instead drenched in nostalgia, with Manchin twice calling Clinton "the best president we've ever had," and an opening prayer thanking the president's recently controversial foundation for "its good work spreading the good news across the globe."

The 2016 election served mostly as a way for Clinton to talk about the gap between the rich and poor, and how only Democrats knew how to close it. "You cannot run a country where two-thirds of the economy depends on consumer spending with increasing inequality," said Clinton, contrasting job growth under Democrats to growth under Republicans. "In the Reagan years, only 77,000 people moved from poverty into the middle class. When we did it, 100 times as many people did."

Sounding a little like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and a lot like himself, Clinton spoke of black lung poisoning taking the lives of men he grew up with. He talked less about the current campaign battle than about an ongoing fight to restore pension money for miners that's been tied up in lawsuits. "Patriot Coal is trying to take $18 million of the $22 million reserved for coal miners, and give it to the lawyers," he said, in one of several arguments about the wealthy trying to exploit workers. "There is something wrong with the fact that before the financial crash, the median income, the one adjusted for inflation. Ninety percent of the benefits had gone to the top 10 percent."

Clinton went on to note, subtly, that the trend had not been changed during the post-2008 recovery. But he made no hard sell for his wife's campaign. "Hillary and Sen. Sanders laid out their programs, and you can see what the differences are," he said, in his only mention of the Democratic primary. (Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, a 2008 Hillary endorser now running a struggling bid of his own, was never mentioned.) "The only people in the lead in [the Republican] primary are the people who've never been in government, because they've spent 35 years telling people to hate government. I felt bad for 'em. In the first debate, it felt like they were taking a theology test in hatred of government, and Trump blew past 'em."

Inside the civic center, the only evidence of a Democratic primary came in the signs that twinned the American Federation of Teachers logo with that of its endorsed candidate, Hillary Clinton. In conversation, plenty of Democratic activists in the room said that they were considering a vote for Sanders. But they were there for Bill Clinton, who elided a debate about the environmental impact of coal -- the issue Republicans had used to end Democratic supremacy in the state -- by noting that its production peaked in 1950. West Virginia needed "universal broadband," he said, and places that had lost energy jobs needed to "get preference" for windmills and other alternative sources of power and jobs.

"There's not some magic solution that resides in how much you hate the government," said Clinton. And after 40 minutes, and another apology for how he was no longer "good at this," he plowed into a rope line, spending just as much time signing books and posing for selfies as he'd spent describing what Democrats needed to stand for.