Bill Clinton certainly knows what it can mean for the party in power to run away from its president in a tough election year.
Back in 1994, then-President Clinton got a cold shoulder from many Democratic lawmakers who were struggling to hang on to their seats and were reluctant to be associated with the president’s controversial tax, economic and health care policies. That November, the Republicans swept to a landslide victory and captured control of both the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years.
Today, many House and Senate Democrats battling for survival are keeping their distance from Barack Obama, another unpopular Democratic president. Obama has offered to do whatever he can to help congressional Democrats retain their seats, but the response he has received from many is “don’t call me, I’ll call you.”
CNN reported at a retreat earlier this month that Obama told Senate Democrats that maintaining control of the Senate is his top priority this year and that he is willing to do whatever it takes – including staying away from election battles where his presence would not be helpful.
Ironically it is Clinton – another formerly shunned president - who is now stepping into the breach to help Democrats raise money and try to stave off disaster at the polls in November. A piece in Tuesday’s New York Times quoted Clinton’s former adviser Paul Begala: “Getting Bill Clinton on the campaign trail is like force-feeding sugar to an ant. You don’t have to ask him twice.”
Clinton made his first 2014 campaign stop in Kentucky on Tuesday, where he sought to boost the candidacy of Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s secretary of state and a Clinton protégé who is challenging Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell this fall. Clinton’s appearance in downtown Louisville at a luncheon attended by 1,200 raised more than $600,000, according to the Grimes campaign.
The former Democratic president plans to travel widely and raise money to support Democratic candidates. Clinton has a relatively strong record as his party’s campaigner-in-chief and was instrumental in defending Obama’s policies at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and throughout the general election campaign.
Democratic strategists are portraying him as a highly popular party elder who presided over robust economic growth and a balanced budget. Moreover, Clinton can use his travels to gather intelligence about the 2016 presidential campaign and pick up some chits in the event his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, decides to run for president.
A September Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that 54 percent of those surveyed held a favorable view of him. That figure was 14 points higher than that of the Democratic Party and nine points higher than Obama’s approval rating.
During his speech in Louisville, Clinton offered his prescription for Democratic success this fall that includes recommitting to populist themes of increasing wages and higher economic growth and standing up to Republican attacks against Obamacare.
Clinton acknowledged that the Affordable Care Act is flawed and complicated and that its rollout was disastrous in the early going, according to The Washington Post. But he argued that the law has given more people in Kentucky access to affordable health care and lowered their costs.
Clinton repeatedly praised Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear, a leading proponent of the law and of its expanded Medicaid provisions, and blamed McConnell and other Republicans for creating “constant conflict.”
Clinton worked his political magic in another high-profile election last October when he helped put Democrat Terry McAuliffe over the top in his tough campaign against Republican Ken Cuccinelli for Virginia governor. Clinton drew large crowds and media attention for McAuliffe in Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton, and hailed his longtime friend and political ally in speech after speech.
After telling one crowd that he had been friends with McAuliffe for years, Clinton said, “I know what a good man he is… I can literally keep you here until tomorrow morning telling you things about him. He is a very, very good man.”
With well over 50 percent of Americans highly critical of Obamacare and the president’s own approval rating hovering around 45 percent, however, many Democrats up for reelection are treating the president and his health care program like toxic assets.
That was particularly noticeable after Obama delivered his State of the Union address late last month, when a number of prominent Democrats voiced disappointment in the tone and content of the speech. In an interview with CNN after the speech, Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, one of the most vulnerable Democrats seeking reelection this year, criticized Obama’s focus on using executive orders to circumvent Congress.
Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor – another vulnerable Democrat - said in a statement that he was disappointed with Obama for not striking a bipartisan tone.
“Overall, I’m disappointed with the president’s State of the Union address because he was heavy on rhetoric, but light on specifics about how we can move our country forward,” he said.
Politico reported earlier this month that some House Democratic candidates and operatives in key battleground districts said that they were displeased with the message and issues Obama has emphasized in recent months that were creating a difficult political headwind for them.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: