Former President Bill Clinton stood up there on the podium in the Grand Ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel and surveyed the audience, a sea of about a thousand young people, and you could’ve forgiven him if he’d erupted into a couple of bars of “Don’t Stop Believing,” the pop-rock song that was a part of his victorious 1992 presidential campaign.
For a minute, it looked like 1992 all over again what with the cheering young students, all of them there for the 7th annual Campus Progress National Conference with its theme of “Turning Truth to Power,” planning, paneling, work shopping, debating ways for the progressive youth movement to “debate, strategize and mobilize around the issues that matter to them.”
This was the same Clinton who could energize a room with an inspiring, confident message back in the day, the same Clinton whose party had lost both the House and the Senate two years into his first term, the same Clinton who ran dizzying strategic political circles around Newt Gingrich, the same Clinton who survived a devastating sex scandal to finish his presidency with a budget surplus, eight years of only nominal U.S. military involvement in international conflicts, eight years of what is now seen as a pragmatic, hands-across-the-aisle style and successful presidency.
Only now it’s different.
“I don’t live in the same world that I lived in when I was president,” he said. “You know what happened—we had a deficit when I came into office, and when we turned it around into a surplus. Damned if they (the GOP) didn’t turn it into a deficit again. Man, I hate deficit as much or more than anybody. But I gotta tell you. Have you noticed the only time the Republicans scream about the deficit and the debt is when they’re out of office?”
Clinton deplored the current focus on deficit reduction and the debt. “It’s destructive,” he said. “You can’t do that sort of thing until you’ve got the economy going again in a good place and it’s in a horrible place right now. If you focus exclusively on spending, you’re going to make things worse, I guarantee you. You’re not creating jobs if you’re firing state employees all over the place and you can see that happening at the state level already.”
He told the gathered students that he liked the theme of the conference: “Turning Truth to Power.” “We used to talk about speaking truth to power, and yes, now, you’ve got to turn truth to power. But what’s happening? You’ve got to get the truth out. I mean, do you know at some basic level, besides the fact that it stopped a depression, that the stimulus plan worked? But nobody knows it? Because nobody has really gotten the word out.”
“There’s information about the health care reform bill that got out there that was just plain wrong, a lie, the death squad thing and a whole lot of other things,” he said. “The truth is we didn’t let people know what was in the bill, we didn’t pare it down to what it really did. It’s the same thing about the GOP budget, the Ryan budget. It’s not going to work. But nobody knows that. And you won’t turn truth into power if you don’t get the truth out and tell it.”
“What you’ve got to do is…turning basic facts into power,” he insisted.
He warned that GOP strategists would try to do everything they could to keep students like them from being able to vote in the state where they’re going to school “You’ve got to be vigilant, you’ve got know this stuff,” he said.
“There are always reasons why people hire Democrats and when,” he said. “When there’s a mess, and there was a mess in 1992 and they hired me, and there was a mess, God was there a mess, in 2008 and they hired Barack Obama. But the mess is still there, because people don’t know the basic facts.”
“The Republicans who control the House and want to control the Senate are now decided that all of a sudden the debt is the biggest problem in the world, after having tripled the debt in the 12 years before I took office, and doubled it since I left.”
That this conference was a progressive-liberal one was pretty easy to spot by the rainbow colors of the participants and reflected in what Clinton told the attendees: “Why in the world are people complaining about immigration? It’s what we are and who we are, immigrants, legal ones, make this country great. What in the world are we afraid of?”
It was also a sharp, active and motivated gathering of folks who may give the lie to claims by experts that young people disappointed with the Obama administration won’t vote. Look at some of the subjects being strategized, discussed and debated all over the hotel on the first day: “Social Media as a Catalyst for Change: Overseas and at Home”; “Understanding Social Justice Movements”; “Fighting for Reproductive Freedom in a Conservative Congress”; “The Journalism of Racial Conflict”; “Recession Generation”; “Green Jobs and the Political Impediments to a Clean Energy Economy”; “America’s Role in the World after Two Wars.”
The agendas alone make you think that just maybe the kids are all right. And so on this day, gray suit, white hair, fit and trim and combative, was William Jefferson Clinton.