Democrats are an interesting lot. As the son of a printing press operator, one who'd sooner vote for a yellow dog than a Republican, I've seen each of the party's last three presidents in person: Barack Obama at his massive Pueblo rally two years ago, Bill Clinton at a relatively intimate Young Democrats fundraiser in 1992, and Jimmy Carter at a point when progressives were still concerned that his Trilateral Commission membership made him unfit to be the Democratic nominee.
On a side note, I also saw Ronald Reagan by complete accident in Los Angeles, when his motorcade unexpectedly turned onto a stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard that was completely deserted except for myself and an anti-Republican companion. Yet, even for this accidental audience of two, Reagan waved with a disarmingly childlike enthusiasm. Out of pure reflex, we blankly waved back.
Still, this is the first time I've seen a president at that stage of life when the White House memories are receding. It's a cold Monday evening in Denver and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet is marking the first day of early voting in Colorado with a late-night Denver rally starring former President Bill Clinton.
It's worth noting that, back during the primary, Obama endorsed Bennet while Clinton threw his weight behind Andrew Romanoff, whom he's known for nearly 20 years. Romanoff since has campaigned on behalf of his former opponent, which is how it's supposed to work in party politics.
Then again, those who skew left-of-center, as Democrats occasionally do, are less naturally inclined to line up and stand at attention than their right-wing counterparts. So the air of party unity Monday night must have been a source of hope for a candidate polling more or less even with Republican Ken Buck in a campaign that is drawing national attention.
Even a decade removed from office, Clinton's celebrity among Dems is apparently running second only to that of Michelle Obama, who appeared at a Bennet fundraiser just last week. In fact, a new Gallup poll, released the morning after this rally, indicates that Bill Clinton is currently more effective than Barack Obama at swaying registered voters toward Democratic candidates.
As an early "We Want Bill" cheer suggests, the 2,000-plus supporters at the Evie Garrett Dennis school campus are geared up for the main attraction, who's been hitting the trail on behalf of Democratic candidates in close races across the country. The original plan, says Bennet spokesman Trevor Kincaid, was to stage a rally in a smaller space that would hold an anticipated 300 people, but that changed after Clinton's participation was confirmed late last week. I ask Kincaid when Obama's coming, and he smiles: "She was just here."
Up at the podium, Colorado House Speaker Terrance Carroll scores points with the crowd early on as he urges them to "send Karl Rove and all his folks back to where they belong." Where that is, exactly, is left unspecified, but there's no doubt that Rove is a major behind-the-scenes player in this campaign season, thanks to the $56 million war chest that the former Bush White House adviser is doling out to Republican/Tea Party campaigns across the country.
A handful of other speakers take their turns, followed by an intermission marked by the first campaign song to emerge from the PA system. If you're looking to get a Colorado crowd "fired up and ready to go," there are few better choices than the Eagles' "Hotel California." Subsequent motivational tunes, chosen by political focus groups and/or somebody's iPod shuffle, include Boston's comparatively upbeat "More Than a Feeling" and that Jack Johnson song where he sings, "Better hope you're not alone" about 15 times.
Next up are Sen. Mark Udall and outgoing Gov. Bill Ritter. It was Ritter who chose Bennet in early 2009 for the seat vacated by Ken Salazar, who was appointed Interior secretary. At the time, many expected Ritter to choose Romanoff, which Ritter apparently alludes to as he recalls facing "unenviable choices" from an "embarrassment of riches." Bennet was the right pick, says Ritter, before recounting the senator's winning attributes and accomplishments.
Working the crowd
After another intermission in which Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" turns out to be a real crowd-pleaser (if only Al Gore had thought to use that in lieu of Fleetwood Mac), Clinton and Bennet are saluted by roaring applause, waving signs and a sea of cell phones. The former president laughs with the crowd when Bennet speaks of how difficult it was to debate two opponents: the extreme candidate who captured the GOP nomination and the somewhat-sanitized version Bennet refers to as "Ken Buck 2.0." (The opponents faced off in a Meet the Press debate on Sunday, during which the Tea Party favorite likened homosexuality to alcoholism.)
Bennet scores another big laugh when he describes Buck's position on replacing current income taxes with a 23 percent sales tax, an idea previously embraced by Arkansas' second-best-known ex-governor, Mike Huckabee: "The new Ken Buck just says, well, that's a good idea that he doesn't support." The senator earns his biggest share of applause when he speaks out against anti-abortion Amendment 62.
After Bennet's 15 minutes, the two Democrats trade places, and it quickly becomes apparent that Clinton's knack for channeling the best attributes of good ol' boys and economics professors is still very much intact. He tells the crowd how, while in office, he used basic math to balance the budget and drive down the deficit. He accuses the Bush administration of "repealing arithmetic" and says he still spends "an hour a day studying this economy."
Clinton also argued that making tax cuts for millionaires permanent would drastically drive up the deficit. To which Clinton, himself a millionaire, adds with a smile: "It would be a great deal for me, if you think I need more."
After a lifetime in politics, Clinton still has no problem keeping a crowd spellbound for 45 minutes. I recall how, during the early days of Clinton's own campaign, my father described him as the greatest communicator since President John F. Kennedy, which was high praise coming from an Irish Catholic.
That said, Clinton has yet to enjoy the historical whitewashing that's benefited earlier presidents like Reagan and even Richard Nixon. Earlier Monday, Clinton was in Kentucky campaigning for Jack Conway, whose opponent, Rand Paul, returned fire by talking about Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. And this week a National Review senior editor wrote that "watching Bill Clinton on the campaign trail this year has brought back the revulsion I once felt, those years ago, when Clinton was president." (Not entirely surprising, given the fact that the column was wrapped around an ad for GOP Senate candidate Joe Miller of Alaska.)
The larger point being that to win heated races like Nevada, Florida, Wisconsin and, yes, Colorado, will require more than just preaching to the choir.
"People have a legitimate right to be mad. They were ripped off, and a lot of people that made a killing are still doing all that," says Clinton in his closing appeal for outreach. "And because people are in such a state — they're angry for good reasons — they are deaf to the facts. You have two weeks to change that."