President Clinton and Democratic gubernatorial candidate and California Attorney General Jerry Brown wave to students at a rally in Los Angeles on Oct. 15. Clinton is as much of an asset to Democratic candidates as President Obama, and in some cases, more so.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Democrats may be forgiven this fall for feeling as if they are experiencing a flashback to 1994. For one thing, there's the obvious comparison to that year's midterms, when energized Republicans took over Congress. And then there's the sound of President Clinton's unmistakable voice in almost every competitive race.
Clinton has been all over the campaign trail for Democrats. So far this year, he's done 95 events in support of 65 candidates. Clinton is as much of an asset to Democratic candidates as President Obama, and in some cases, more so.
One of Clinton's stops this week was Everett, Wash., where he stumped for Sen. Patty Murray. The graying baby-boomer crowd treated him like a rock star.
Get a midterm forecast from NPR's Ken Rudin and other political watchers at our Election Scorecard.
"He shook my hand," said Mary Beauduin, who drove for more than an hour to see Clinton. "I'm not going to wash it ever again."
She added: "I think he's the best president we've ever had. I think he's wonderful."
But onstage, Clinton tried to deflect the rock star stuff. Instead of leading a pep rally, he launched into a lecture on recent economic history.
"It took me four years to balance the budget, then I gave you four surpluses, paid $600 billion down on the national debt," he said to long cheers.
The interruptions for cheering almost seemed to make Clinton impatient.
"This is important, folks! You need to talk to people who aren't here," he said. "I don't want cheerleading; I want you to win. This is a matter of the evidence."
As though he were in a courtroom, Clinton laid out a point-by-point argument for why he thinks the Republicans are wrong about the economy — a half-hour speech that he's delivered dozens of times just this month.
"He certainly seems like he has a lot of strength," said Chad Causey, a first-time candidate running for Congress in Arkansas.
Clinton went through Causey's district last week.
"We went from 3 [p.m.] nonstop until probably 11 o'clock at night ... when that rally finally got done, and I shook his hand and he got on that plane to leave," said Causey, a Democrat.
He acknowledged that the enthusiasm for Clinton may be a form of nostalgia for the go-go '90s, and he hopes some of that rubs off on him.
"If some folks feel that the connection with President Clinton is with that time of economic growth and prosperity in this country, I hope they'll find that connection with me moving forward," he said.
But Clinton offers candidates something more than nostalgia. He gives them a chance to get on local TV with a Democratic president who is not Obama.
Just this weekend, Gallup polled registered voters, asking them if appearances by Clinton or Obama would make them more likely to vote for a local candidate: 26 percent said Clinton would; 19 percent said Obama would. So the two men have about the same power to encourage votes. But when it comes to discouraging votes, there's a bigger difference. Forty percent said an appearance by Obama would make them less likely to vote for a candidate, compared with just 26 percent for Clinton.
"When Obama shows up, he may motivate the base, but Obama also has a higher power to alienate independents and Republicans as does Clinton," said Frank Newport, Gallup's editor in chief. "Clinton is a more benign figure right now. It's a little safer to bring Clinton to one's district than it is to bring the much more polarizing current President Obama."
But as Clinton himself points out to the cheering crowds, presidents are often judged more harshly in office than out.
"Look, folks, I remember. I've seen this movie before, in 1994. I called the president the other day and I said, 'Relax, they haven't said anything about you that they didn't say about me,' " he said. " 'The only reason they're being nice to me now is I can't run for anything anymore.' "
If this is a rerun of that movie, Democrats can only hope their current president does as well in the role of the Comeback Kid.