When you’re a major candidate for President of the United States and your spouse is both an ex-President and a superstar celebrity, you can
The former President in Whitehaven
be debating your primary opponent before one audience (a national one), while the aforesaid spouse is pleading your case before another audience (an important regional one).
That was the happy circumstance that Hillary Clinton availed herself of Thursday night. While the former Secretary of State was in Milwaukee tangling once more in a TV debate format with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, husband Bill Clinton was in Memphis talking her up before an overflow audience and an attentive local media at Whitehaven High School.
Memphis congressman Steve Cohen introduced the former President variously as “the greatest President this area has ever seen” and (reprising a onetime honorary title) as “the first black President” and (in a more accurate variation on that trope) as “a stand-in for the first black President.”
For, after all, Bill Clinton is not now and was not ever an actual African American — though in his own remarks he would invoke the “African genesis” theory of mankind’s evolution by way of supporting his theme that we are all one species, 99.5 percent the same in all important particulars, and thus beholden to come together in common cause.
There were less intellectual reasons — having to do with style points, mainly — for Clinton’s once having had that “first black president” tag bestowed on him. And they were a major reason for the former President’s being in Memphis, a substantially black city, less than a month before Tennessee and several other states will cast their ballots in the March 1 Super Tuesday primary that could prove decisive in the Democratic primary contest.
But Cohen’s jocular reference to Clinton as a “stand-in” was a reminder, intentional or not, of the important role Clinton played at the 2012 Democratic National Convention with an eloquent speech laying out the rationale for Barack Obama’s reelection as President.
In that sense, Clinton was back to being a stand-in again on Thursday night, this time on behalf of his wife’s chances in her second try for the Presidency.
The Tennessee Republican Party took note of the visit and responded with acerbic glee, as witness this statement from TNGOP executive director Brent Leatherwood:
"Any scenario where Vermont Socialist Bernie Sanders leaves Tennessee with delegates is a loss for Hillary Clinton and they know it. In fact, it's gotten so bad the Clintons are concerned Tennessee may deal them a New Hampshire-sized defeat. But parachuting in Bill Clinton, hastily opening offices at the last minute, and trying to out-flank a Socialist aren't going to be enough. It looks increasingly likely that Tennessee is poised to deliver another loss to the Clinton campaign."
To say it is “likely” that Sanders will defeat Hillary Clinton in Tennessee on Super Tuesday is a bit of a stretch, but it is surely true that Bill Clinton’s visit signifies that the Clinton camp is taking no chances. Sanders, who ended in a virtual tie with Hillary in Iowa, routed her fairly easily in New Hampshire, a state whose primary she took in 2008 when it was Barack Obama getting the early drop on her.
The chances of Sanders replicating Obama’s march to the nomination through subsequent primaries seem fairly remote when you consider that, especially in Tennessee and other “SEC” states, the black vote, so important in Democratic constituencies, will, for obvious reasons, be less inclined to go for a white New Englander than is was in 2008 for a fellow African American from Chicago.
But, again, the Clintons are taking no chances. Sanders has begin courting black leaders of late, attracting to his standard such allies as former NAACP head Ben Jealous.
So a large part of Bill Clinton’s mission in Memphis was to demonstrate that, even on populist issues where Sanders’ campaign might have obvious appeal to African Americans, Hillary Clinton’s positions were equally compelling, if not superior.
A case in point was his denunciation, a la Sanders, of the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision opening the floodgates to unbridled campaign spending by PACs — thereby, as Clinton said, declaring both corporate monoliths and minimum-wage workers “equally free to spent what they want on elections.”
And the former President did not fail to note, as his wife has done of late, that the basis of the suit before the Court had been an extravagantly produced video philippic aimed at Hillary Clinton herself.
Clinton argued that his wife’s means-based plan for reducing tuition costs in college was more realistic than Sanders’ call for universal free tuition, and contended further that her proposals to build upon the already existing Affordable Care Act was economically feasible while the Vermonter’s espousal of “Medicare for all” was not.
He cited Hillary Clinton’s jobs proposals, coupled with stout raises in the minimum wage, as common-sense solutions to a stagnant consumer economy in which “somebody’s got to earn something to buy something.“ And he quoted Lyndon Johnson on the notion that anyone spurning “half a loaf” solutions is someone “who’s never been hungry.”
Clinton spent considerable time demonstrating his wife’s commitments to criminal justice reform and her intercessions, going as far back as her time in Arkansas, against federal funding for white-only schools.
He touted her as a leader able both to “stand her ground” on principle and to “seek common ground” on issues, noting that she had been able to team up with former Republican House leader Tom DeLay on legislation facilitating post-infant adoptions.
As Hillary Clinton herself has done of late, the former President made strenuous efforts to endorse the actions of the Obama presidency and to associate her with the President’s accomplishments, which are “far greater than he’s been given credit for.
Her goal, he said, was to make “the American dream” available to everybody, to people of all races, classes, and stations in life — “Yes, we can,” he said, invoking a well-known Obama phrase — and the course of her life, he proclaimed, had been one of “always making something good happen.”
There was more, much more, but in essence Bill Clinton did the same kind of earnest special pleading for his wife’s election in 2016 at Whitehaven High on Thursday night as he had done for Obama’s on the Convention stage in Charlotte in 2012.
We’ll find out on March 1 if he was as effective this time out.