TEMPE, Ariz. — Former president Bill Clinton made no mention of his wife, but in his rallying cry to some 1,200 college students here Saturday one could hear a succinct rationale for her to run for president.
The country faces long-term debt problems that threaten its global competitiveness, Clinton said, and the solutions are not mind-numbingly difficult. But, he told the crowd, addressing them will require political will.
“Who will stand up and say: ‘Send me. I’ll fight for that’?” Clinton said. “There’s no place for any of us in the peanut gallery. We have to be on the field and playing.”
Clinton’s remarks were about motivating young leaders to become more involved in politics and policy. “The Age of Participation” is the theme of this weekend’s Clinton Global Initiative University conference held on the Tempe campus of Arizona State University. But as with everything the Clintons say and do these days, the former president’s comments will be interpreted vis-a-vis Hillary Rodham Clinton’s deliberations about running for president in 2016.
For the past two days, Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton have held forth on a campus stage using their star power to motivate some 1,200 millennials to foster change in their communities and the world. In one session, Hillary Clinton looked out on a sea of young people and said they were “open-minded and tolerant.”
“We are going to make sure the millennial generation really is the participation generation,” she said Friday night.
Although the three-day conference centers on altruism — on Sunday morning, the Clintons will join former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, in a community service project to beautify a part of nearby downtown Phoenix — current events entered into the discussions.
During a wide-ranging family interview Saturday night with late-night talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel, Hillary Clinton said she hoped the millennial generation commits to making climate change “a voting issue” as powerful as other issues.
“This is not just some ancillary issue,” Hillary Clinton said. “This will determine in large measure the quality of life in so many places around the world. I’m hoping that there will be this mass movement that demands political change.”
When Vrinda Agarwal, a student at the University of California at Berkeley, asked Clinton to represent women by running for president, Clinton said, “I’m obviously thinking about all kinds of decisions.”
“Look,” she added, “I am very much concerned about the direction of our country — and it’s not just who runs for office but what they do when they get there, and how we bring people together and particularly empower young people so that we can tackle these hard decisions we’ve just been talking about.”
Earlier Saturday, Bill Clinton went on an extemporaneous riff about deficit issues. He blamed debt problems on Republicans, who he said have campaigned irresponsibly since the 1980s on promises never to raise taxes. He said they were “just like a child who likes to eat candy every day and never go to the dentist.”
Clinton also condemned the state of U.S. politics and the growing power of super PACs to negatively define candidates.
“You couldn’t always depend on a billionaire spending a fortune to run television ads against you to tell everybody how un-American you are,” Clinton said. “This is a new thing in American history.”
“On a bipartisan basis,” Clinton added, “we need to reject it.”
In an earlier session, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) joined Clinton for a panel discussion. Fifteen years ago, McCain voted twice to impeach Clinton after he lied about his extramarital affair with a White House intern. But on Friday night, all that seemed far in the past as the two men hammed it up like old buddies. They talked about the serious (Russia’s aggression in Ukraine) and the silly (tweets from reality star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi), and they showered each other with high praise.
Introducing McCain, Clinton called the senator “a good friend of Hillary’s and mine, although we permit him to deny it at election time.” McCain in turn congratulated Clinton on two terms in office and credited him with intervening in Bosnia to end ethnic strife there. “I think you made the right decisions,” McCain told Clinton.
The bipartisan geniality underscored the close relationship McCain and Hillary Clinton developed when she was a senator, as well as the narrow daylight between the two on foreign policy.
The warmth also illustrated McCain’s own recent political journey. Four years ago, McCain was running for reelection as an embattled incumbent struggling to prove his conservative bona fides and beat back a tea party challenger. The McCain of 2010 may not have so warmly welcomed the Clintons to Arizona.
Yet here was the senator, explaining to Clinton his experiences with Twitter — a medium the former president called “a staggering instrument of potential.” When Congress passed the Affordable Care Act, McCain recalled, he received a tweet from someone named Snooki. “I don’t know how familiar you are with Snooki, Mr. President,” McCain said, eliciting knowing laughter from Clinton.
McCain said the very bronzed star of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” sent him a tweet complaining that the health-care law included a tax on tanning beds, to which McCain replied that he would never tax her tanning bed.
Clinton and McCain also discussed the situation in Ukraine. Referring to a conversation he had backstage earlier with Clinton about Russia’s president, McCain said: “Vladimir Putin is not a democrat. He’s an old KGB colonel, and Vladimir Putin wants to restore what was once the Russian empire.”