ROCHESTER – So, a pair of upstate Democrats struggling for re-election to Congress get together and ask who could best shore up their base while reeling in crucial independents.
Their answer? Bill Clinton.
And in a rip-snorting stump speech at the cavernous Main Street Armory in Rochester Friday afternoon, the former president did not disappoint Reps. Kathleen C. Hochul of Amherst and Louise M. Slaughter of Fairport. He reprised his now-famous “tutorial” of last month’s Democratic National Convention by detailing a host of differences between the Democratic and Republican approaches to key issues like Medicare, Social Security and education – while portraying Hochul as a kindred moderate willing to cooperate with the opposition.
“Her opponent says he will vote with Democrats exactly 0 percent of the time,” said Clinton, referring to Republican opponent Chris Collins. “If you want something done, you’ve got to elect Kathy Hochul to Congress.”
That’s exactly the medicine Hochul ordered for her deadlocked campaign against Collins. While the Republican former county executive pounds her association with President Obama (whom polls show unpopular in the overwhelmingly Republican 27th District), Clinton looms as a moderate in the eyes of many voters and a model for her claim of independence.
As she introduced the former president to a Democratic crowd of about 2,500, Hochul recalled his “third way” of politics that often involved compromise with Republicans. And in a post-rally interview, she said Clinton represented the message she has attempted to convey in her tough battle against Collins.
“He really embodies bipartisanship and the willingness to work across party lines,” she said. “That’s what makes me tick. He re-enforced that kind of elected official that I am and what we need in Washington.”
The 42nd president was far from conciliatory in most of his remarks, however. Standing on a simple stage against the backdrop of Hochul, Slaughter and a huge American flag, he drew sharp distinctions between the Republican and Democratic approaches to the nation’s thorniest issues – using the presidential campaigns of Obama and Republican Mitt Romney to highlight his points.
He ripped the GOP approach to the Affordable Health Care Act.
“The worst thing in the world is status quo,” he said. “This is not just a health care issue, it’s an economic issue.”
Clinton rattled off a host of statistics supporting “Obamacare,” including that Americans received $1.3 billion in health insurance refunds this year as a result – including $86 million for New Yorkers. And he emphasized the popular aspects of the program, such as coverage on parental policies for those younger than 26.
Just as he did at the Charlotte convention, Clinton also delved into the program’s deepest details. That may not have caused any problem with Collins, who continually elevates Obamacare to the top of his attacks on Hochul.
Still, the former president came back to the Hochul theme of cooperation and compromise by noting that Democrats had repealed one aspect of the bill that imposed “onerous” regulations on small business.
“Because we don’t think we’re right all of the time,” he said.
The former president went on to defend the Democratic approach to Medicare espoused by Hochul and Slaughter (running in a tight race against Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks) that will oppose any effort to transform it into a voucher-based system. In far more detail than Hochul has explained on the campaign trail, he said the GOP plan will go broke by 2016 and give the opposition an “excuse” to privatize it.
He also re-embraced his convention analysis of the “arithmetic” that he said fails to add up under the proposals of Romney and running mate Paul Ryan. Hochul, on the other hand, has voted for “real spending cuts” and will continue if re-elected, he said.
And just like his convention approach that included frequent side comments (“I want you to listen carefully here”), Clinton launched into a detailed criticism of GOP plans for the Medicaid program with his own editorializing.
“This really steams me,” he said as he explained the Republican idea to make states responsible for administering the program through federal grants.
The Republican plan to “slash” spending, he said, will also result in massive cuts to student loans and programs he said will ultimately strengthen the economy.
“They will generate a 21st century economy for you if you work with them,” the former president said of Hochul and Slaughter. “But not if [Republicans] gut all this money.”
And in the convention speech claim that may have made the most lasting impression, Clinton again insisted that neither Obama nor anybody else could rectify the most serious economic problems to face the country since the Depression.
“Nobody who ever served as president could have brought this economy back in four years,” he said.
Former Erie County Democratic Chairman Leonard R. Lenihan, who was instrumental in the planning that brought Clinton to Rochester, called the speech “Clintonesque.”
“Basically it was a lesson on how to build the economy and have it work for everybody and not just a few,” he said. “There is a difference in the programs.”
Lenihan’s successor, Jeremy J. Zellner, also attended the speech and also believed it struck the right tone.
“He said we know how to fix the economy,” he said, “and Kathy Hochul and Louise Slaughter know how to fix it.”