Former President Bill Clinton told a jubilant crowd in Spokane on Monday that a Hillary Clinton presidency would stabilize this turbulent moment in American politics by helping everyone “rise together.”
Before about 650 people in a gym at Spokane Falls Community College, Clinton quoted poet William Butler Yeats: “When things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”
“This is an incredible moment for our country,” he said. “We can’t come together if things are falling apart. But I think we should try. If you think so, you should vote for her.”
In a wide-ranging speech that lasted 45 minutes, Clinton continually referred to his wife as a “change maker” who could get things done in the White House despite Republican resistance.
Clinton, whose speech was piped outside to about 500 people who couldn’t fit in the gym, spoke about topics familiar to Democratic voters this year: gun control, climate change, income inequality, terrorism and college affordability. He criticized Republicans for blocking initiatives under President Barack Obama, but refrained from mentioning Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner.
The largest slight he delivered to Republicans came when he mentioned astronaut Scott Kelly, who just spent nearly a year in space aboard the International Space Station.
“We were joking and I said, ‘I bet when (he) figured out what was going on down here in the other party’s primary, he might have thought he was still in outer space,” Clinton said.
Clinton also did not mention Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination, but he did implicitly take on Sanders on a number of fronts.
“We’ve got to make college affordable for everyone,” Clinton said, taking on one of Sanders’ central planks to make college free for everyone. “Tuition’s been going through the roof so it makes it appealing to say, ‘Let’s give tuition to everybody.’ Hillary thinks that’s not the best choice. … We should give free tuition to people from middle incomes and below who really need it.”
He mentioned “beefing up” the Pell Grant and giving “everybody the chance to earn 10 hours a week of work-study money.” Such moves would keep tuition from rising and be paid for by raising taxes on the wealthy, he said.
“She believes that we should raise taxes on the highest-income people because, after all, they’re the only people that have benefited since the crash,” he said. “Not all those people are bad people, but they do have more money.”
Clinton also went after Sanders when he said Washington was the “most successful state” in terms of exports, in part because of Washington-based Boeing, which builds “the biggest airplane.”
Clinton praised the workings of the Export-Import Bank, which is a small federal agency that makes and guarantees loans to help foreign customers buy U.S. goods. Sanders has called the bank “corporate welfare,” and his opposition to the recent reauthorization of the bank was a rare agreement with conservative politicians.
Hillary Clinton, like most Democrats, supports the bank, calling her position a “no-brainer.”
It was clear who the former president was referring to when praising the bank.
“Hillary’s the only candidate left in the Democratic primary that supports the Export-Import Bank,” he said. “Look, every Democrat but one supported it and Ted Cruz led the opposition to it.”
Clinton noted that 900,000 manufacturing jobs had been created since the economic recession began in 2009.
“I believe America can have a huge resurgence in modern manufacturing,” he said. “Since we got the biggest market in the world, we should save a lot of transportation dollars and make more stuff here, which we can do if we train people in institutions like this and if we give people incentives to bring those jobs home instead of put them somewhere else.”
Clinton has decades of experience campaigning for himself, his wife and other politicians, and he was at ease rattling off his wife’s political platform. But he was clearly more comfortable when he slipped into storytelling mode, spinning a yarn about a town in southern Ohio when praising his wife for raising the issue of presciption drug abuse.
The poor Appalachian town has renovated a historic building to house six doctors to “provide medical care for people who wouldn’t get it otherwise and do their residency there.” The town is also suffering from a severe prescription drug abuse problem.
“These people are not just dying of drugs,” he said. “They’re dying of a broken heart.”
Finally, Clinton said his wife was the only candidate who could help all Americans.
“The American people have been through a heck of a lot,” he said, noting that the economic recovery looks good on paper. “The problem is most Americans can stare at that picture and they can’t find themselves in it to save their lives. … Hillary’s running for president to put everybody in the picture. You have to seize the opportunities and take down the barriers so all people can rise together.”
Clinton was clearly a draw for local Democratic voters, but the nearly 1,200 people who came to hear him speak did not come close to reaching the nearly 10,000 people who lined up to see Sanders.
Karla Kjargaard, of Spokane, sat in a folding chair soaking up sunshine, a far cry from the last time she waited to see Hillary Clinton.
“There’s not 2 feet of snow on the ground, and it’s not 12 degrees, or whatever it was the last time she was here,” said Kjargaard, speaking of Clinton’s appearance at the West Central Community Center in 2008. “I was there, but we weren’t even close to getting in. It was too small a venue.”
Republicans have used Clinton as “a punching bag,” Kjargaard said, and she hoped the former president would encourage local Democrats to caucus for her.
“I think a woman needs a chance,” Kjargaard said.
Jake Conant, a Central Valley High School graduate back in the area on spring break from Stanford University, said most of his colleagues at Stanford bought in to the message of Bernie Sanders. Conant conceded that he found much of the Vermont senator’s message attractive.
But he believed Clinton was in the best position to appeal to moderates and win the general election in November.
“I feel like Hillary’s the choice that’s a little more centrist, and a little more willing to compromise, especially with a Republican Congress,” he said.
Randy Hodges, a retired Air Force maintenance specialist from Mead, said he’d supported Bill Clinton since he started in the armed services in 1990.
“I have always thought he was an incredible and charismatic speaker. I love hearing him speak,” said Hodges, who said he would caucus but was not “100 percent for Hillary” on Monday.
Bryan Schwaderer, of Spokane, also said he was uncertain about which candidate he’d support, though he planned to caucus. He attended the Sanders rally downtown Sunday night.
“I want to hear solutions, for people, and something for Spokane,” Schwaderer said. “That was one thing Bernie didn’t do really well.”
Others counted themselves as disinterested observers. Thirteen-year-old Gabby Cunningham, a student at the Odyssey gifted learning program at the Libby Professional Development Center, stood at the back of the gym Monday holding a dog-eared copy of Foreign Affairs magazine. She hoped to hear more about Clinton’s plans for diplomacy in the Middle East.
“I can’t change anything at this point, but to be able to understand that I can make a difference in society, would be nice to know,” said Cunningham, whose father dropped her off at the rally. She said he – and most of her family – identified as Republican.