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Analysis: Bill Clinton: Star surrogate, reminder of Hillary Clinton’s liabilities

Former President Bill Clinton campaigned in Los Angeles on Sunday on behalf of his wife, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Former President Bill Clinton campaigned in Los Angeles on Sunday on behalf of his wife, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Bill Clinton is the star surrogate of his wife’s presidential campaign. His speeches on her behalf carry echoes of his winning arguments from a generation ago; his pledge then that Americans would “rise and fall together” has morphed into his promise that his wife’s policies will make the nation “rise together.”

But for all of his wow factor and the crowds’ enthusiasm, Bill Clinton’s presence is a reminder of something less positive for his wife’s campaign: Much of the Democratic base has moved further to the left than the former First Couple.

That came through during a campaign event Sunday in Los Angeles, where Bill Clinton praised the California Legislature’s passage of a measure that eventually will raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour.

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“God bless you for passing the minimum wage law,” the former president told an audience that included some of the legislative leaders who pushed it.

In contrast to the leap the legislators had taken, however, Hillary Clinton’s view on raising the minimum wage has been the definition of caution. She has backed a substantially smaller federal pay raise, to $12 per hour, with states encouraged to set their own levels as they see fit. (She took part in New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signing of that state’s $15 minimum wage measure on Monday).

The Clinton approach of incremental change may get workers in places like California and New York to the same place, but to many activists it seems weak compared to the full-throated support for a national increase from Clinton’s opponent Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator.

Bill Clinton’s Sunday remarks, made at a venerable Democratic campaign stop, the campus of Los Angeles Trade Tech College, also included reminders of past policy positions that run counter to where the party’s voters are today.

At one point he praised the “stunning advances” in the rights of gay and lesbian Americans, and lamented the lack of federal nondiscrimination laws. Gay Americans “once prohibited from doing so can get married this weekend and be fired tomorrow,” he said.

Clinton made no mention of the fact that he was the president who in 1996 signed the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that limited marriage to a man and a woman.

Later, as he laid out Hillary Clinton’s plan to provide expensive job training and other support for those leaving prison, he asserted that there were “too many young people in jail.”

But Clinton did not mention his role in pushing for stringent criminal justice measures in the 1990s. Back then, many African American elected officials, concerned about high rates of crime, supported his moves. Today, many young black activists blame those laws for imprisoning large percentages of minority men.

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The Democratic redefinition that has occurred as the party grew more liberal in recent years is one reason that both Clintons heap praise on President Obama.

Hillary and Bill Clinton regularly say that Obama doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his stewardship of the economy, and they tout the importance to Americans of the healthcare reform Obama pushed. They talk of him saving the auto industry and curbing the nuclear ambitions of Iran.

The goal is to prove Hillary Clinton is the truest heir to the legacy of Obama and to the loyalty of the voters, many of them young and liberal, who twice helped to put him in office. She needs to do that because without Obama, she has no real connection to many of those voters. They came of age long after the Clintons left the White House, and Sanders, far more than Clinton, reflects their liberal urges.

Defenders of the Clintons, and the centrist ideology that came to be known as Clintonism which the couple forwarded in the 1990s, point out that it’s natural for views to evolve over the years. A majority of the country, after all, opposed gay marriage in the 1990s and has now embraced it, making the Clinton evolution nothing extraordinary.

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And there is the matter of context: In 1992, when Bill Clinton ran for the presidency, the Democratic party had lost the presidency for five of the six previous elections, the only exception being the post-Watergate win by Jimmy Carter in 1976.

The candidates in those losing elections had been liberal, a word that by the Reagan years had devolved into a political slur. Democrats were not only losing presidential elections, they were being defeated by such striking margins that many wondered if they would ever regain the White House.

Clinton, along with other figures at the time, embraced what he called a “third way” between traditional liberalism and Republican conservatism that included some elements of each, and that path led him to the presidency.

Among the more conservative ideas were support of free trade agreements, welfare reform and criminal justice reform, all of which have been used against Hillary Clinton by Sanders this year.

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In some ways, both Clintons are still embracing a third way, this time between a Republican Party that has lurched to the right and the Sanders campaign, with its firm standing on the left.

Sanders is arguing that his harsh anti-Wall Street stance is necessary to prevent another Great Recession or worse; Clinton counters that changes made under Obama already have narrowed Wall Street’s ability to wreak more havoc.

On healthcare, Clinton proposes a middle course that would improve President Obama’s plan, but not repeal it as Republicans favor or brush it aside for a Medicare-style, government insurance plan as Sanders desires. On college tuition and trade policy, too, she represents a middle ground between Sanders and the Republican candidates.

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Central to her success is convincing Americans that things are not bad enough that they should flee to the revolutionary approaches of Sanders or Republican front-runner Donald Trump. Both she and her husband evoke an optimism about the country’s present and future that is missing in the thundering campaigns of Sanders and Trump.

Bill Clinton on Sunday ticked off the details of a new jobs report that found Americans moving back into the job market because, as he said, “Americans are waking up and saying ‘My country’s coming back.’”

“I believe that we are just this close to being able to rise together again,” Clinton said. “And let’s face it, the reason there has been so much intensity in this primary in both parties is that a lot of people despair and don’t believe that.

“They think things are so rigged against them that we can’t do it,” he said.

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He was headed back toward another blitz of optimism, when a listener yelled out an affirmation, quickly repeated by Clinton: “Si se puede.”

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @cathleendecker. For more on politics, go to latimes.com/decker.

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