CONCORD, N.H. — Bernie Sanders may be leading a “political revolution,” but according to former president Bill Clinton, the real “change maker” is his wife, Hillary.
With the Democratic presidential race tightening and moving into a combative phase, Bill Clinton used twin campaign appearances here Wednesday to sharpen the contrast between Hillary Clinton and Sanders, the Vermont senator who has surged ahead of her in the polls in New Hampshire.
Sounding like the spouse of a candidate running behind, Clinton pleaded with New Hampshire Democrats to deliver his family yet another win, and he crystallized the pragmatist-vs.-idealist contrast between the top two Democratic candidates more clearly than either his wife or her campaign have done to date.
Clinton said his wife is a lifelong change agent whose practicality and deal-making have delivered results, and he cast Sanders — to whom he referred only as “Hillary’s opponent” — as a naive idealist whose ideas may be appealing but are not realistic.
To drive home the differences, Clinton singled out the issue of health care. “I don’t want to comment on the merits; I just want to talk about the practical reality,” he said.
While Clinton said his wife would preserve President Obama’s Affordable Care Act and improve it, he portrayed the Medicare-for-all, single-payer plan that Sanders has proposed as a liberal fairy tale, warning that it stands no chance of becoming law as long as Republicans control the House and Senate.
“It’s a recipe for gridlock,” Clinton said, adding: “We don’t need more gridlock in Washington. We cannot afford to waste a year or two.”
The 42nd president spoke at a boisterous rally in Concord and gave a morning pep talk to volunteers at the campaign’s Salem field office. He has stepped up his appearances on the campaign trail this month, hop-scotching between Iowa and New Hampshire to help fill in gaps in his wife’s schedule.
Clinton acknowledged the closeness of the race with Sanders. Although Hillary Clinton maintains a lead nationally, the latest early-state polls show the two candidates in a dead-heat in Iowa and Sanders surpassing her in New Hampshire. A CNN-WMUR poll released Tuesday sent shock waves through both campaigns, showing Sanders leading 60 percent to 33 percent in New Hampshire, although neither campaign thinks the gap is quite that substantial.
“This has turned into an interesting election,” the former president said. “It took longer than I thought.”
Handicapping the race, he added: “We’re fighting it out in Iowa. We’ve got a little lead that I think is solidifying and maybe growing a little bit. We’re on a home-field disadvantage here. But the real issue is, who can win the election, who’s prepared the do the job, who can make real change?”
Clinton reflected on the volatile mood of the electorate that has put Hillary Clinton’s nomination in jeopardy and is wreaking havoc on the Republican establishment.
“They should be mad, and they should feel left out and left behind,” Clinton said of voters. “But what they need now is not anger but answers.”
Clinton seemed perplexed that, once again, his wife is being cast as the status-quo candidate and is losing the mantle of change to an insurgent rival. He called her a “change maker” at least six times in his Salem remarks.
“She is a walking, breathing change maker,” Clinton insisted. “Every day she thinks, what can I do to make it better? Some people think it’s incremental. I think it’s realistic.”
Reaching for historical validation of his wife’s pragmatism, Clinton cited remarks made by a former president and a former New York governor: “Lyndon Johnson said, ‘You can talk about miles when you speak, but sometimes you’re making progress in inches.’ Mario Cuomo said, ‘We campaign in poetry, but we govern in prose.’ ”
He hoped his appearance would generate more enthusiasm for his wife’s candidacy. His visit to the Salem office — a modest outpost in a strip mall, decorated with hand-painted signs that read “Pant Suit Power” and “Granite Staters for Hillary” — was upbeat. He helped mobilize volunteers, some 200 of whom showed up to see him.
Clinton also talked up his nostalgia for New Hampshire, where in the snowy winter of 1992 he earned the moniker “Comeback Kid” by finishing a surprising second in the primary. He went on to win the nomination, of course.
Clinton joked that he gained 20 pounds that winter eating donuts and drinking coffee at the Dunkin’ Donuts franchises that dot the state. Now a vegan after heart scares, Clinton said his diet has improved, but he still stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts on Wednesday — “a little walk down memory lane,” he said.
“You’ve been good to me. You’ve been good to our family. I trust you,” Clinton said.
Sounding like an underdog, he continued: “Two weeks is an eternity in politics. In New Hampshire, it’s an eternity.”