Bill Clinton hit the campaign trail for his wife in New Hampshire for the first time this election season on Monday, boasting of Hillary’s record as an activist and organizer before reaching elected office.
The former president’s reentry into politics during an organizing event in Nashua, New Hampshire, marks a new phase of the campaign. Bill touted his wife’s devotion to the common good in Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina and as First Lady, even while exposing himself and Hillary to criticism from Republicans.
“She hadn’t been elected to anything, but everything she touched she made better,” Bill told the crowd, recounting Hillary’s early days as a legal activist for minority children and dealmaker in the White House.
“There she was at Yale Law School. She could have written her ticket to go anywhere she wanted all she was really interested in was providing legal services to poor people.”
The former president’s emergence on the campaign trail comes with all the risks and messiness of the 2016 campaign season. Republicans have already assailed Bill Clinton for being a blast from the 1990s past, and Donald Trump has begun dredging accusations of sexism against him for the Monica Lewinsky affair and other scandals.
Campaigning in New Hampshire on the same day as Clinton, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey mocked the former president’s appearance on behalf of his wife. “Are we going forwards or are we going backwards?” Christie said at a campaign event in Manchester about Bill. “We’ve seen this act before.”
The Republican Party leadership also targeted Clinton on Monday. “With new reports about conflicts of interest and favoritism toward donors at the Clinton State Department, the deployment of Bill Clinton to the campaign trail only reinforces the fact the Clintons are untrustworthy and have used public service to enrich themselves and reward their friends,” Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short said.
Bill Clinton is expert campaigner who came back from double defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire in the 1992 presidential primary. But he started his speech on Monday slowly, seeming almost weary in a chaotic primary year. His first words revealed a note of disconnect.
“Sometimes I follow this debate in the presidential elections, especially when I watch the other guys debating, and I think, ‘You know, I don’t fit anymore,’” Bill said at the outset. “First of all, I’m a happy grandfather, I’m not mad at anybody. And I thought an election was supposed to be a job interview.”
Clinton’s focused on Democrats’ achievements during his own presidency, looking back on the economy during the Reagan years and during the 1990s, when he was president. He recited figures reflecting the growth of the middle class and increased incomes for the poor during his two terms.
“Compared with President Reagan’s term,” Bill said, “one hundred times as many people worked their way from poverty into the middle class. The top 5% actually did slightly better under President Reagan than me. Everybody else did better in the 1990s … We grew together.”
Trump has turned into Clinton’s chief antagonizer, tweeting last week: “I hope Bill Clinton starts talking about women’s issues so that voters can see what a hypocrite he is and how Hillary abused those women.” The billionaire also said that Bill has a “penchant for sexism.”
But Bill ignored most of the Republican field in his speech, and instead focused on the bread and butter of Hillary Clinton’s pitch: that she has always been activist for the common good.
He recalled falling in love with Hillary, remembering his wife as being part of a “distinct minority” of female law students at Yale University in the early 1970s.
“This is what I want to say: things that a lot of you may not know,” the former president told the crowd. “When we got out (of law school) she could have gone to work, big law firm get a fancy clerkship. She took a job at the Children’s Defense Fund.”
He remembered that Hillary had helped found an early education program for immigrant children in Arkansas and that she has investigated the placement of African-American children in adult prisons in South Carolina. In another anecdote, Bill said that Hillary as First Lady worked on a bill to reform foster care policy in the late 1990s with Tom DeLay, then a leading Republican in the House of Representatives.
“He was the Ted Cruz of the pre-Tea Party era,” Bill said. “He disliked me, I think, more than anybody in Congress. She comes into see me one day, she said ‘I found it! I found it! … I found the human streak in Tom DeLay. He is an adoptive parent.”
Bill is well-liked in New Hampshire and widely popular among Democrats. And it’s unclear that attacks of sexism against Bill will serve as anything more than a distraction: Hillary Clinton’s saw some of her highest approval ratings in the middle of the tumultuous Lewinsky proceedings in 1999.
Hillary is locked in a contentious race with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, where the senator is a few points ahead in the polls. Bill seemed sanguine about his wife’s prospects after his event in Nashua.
“She’s been here a lot, worked hard,” he said in response to a question from NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “That’s all you can do. These people are really fair.”