There were lines outside the big tent where Bill Clinton spoke an hour before he was set to begin. A seminar on “The Future of Cancer” was his warm-up act. When he took the stage, spillover crowds were placed in a nearby auditorium to get a secondary dose of Bubba’s political wisdom.
He didn’t disappoint. Throughout this conference, the debt and debt talks were much on attendees’ minds, focused by the cataclysmic game of chicken being played in Congress.
The only Democratic President re-elected since FDR gave this advice to the White House on the debt-ceiling negotiations: “Don’t Blink.”
“This is the political equivalent of the government shutdown when I was president,” Clinton offered, leaning back in a chair on stage. “The leadership of the Republican party then figured that they could make the White House blink…The White House could blink. I hope that won’t happen. I don’t think they should blink.”
“[The Republicans] idea of a compromise is we’re only going to get 85 percent of what we ask for and you’re not going to get anything you asked for,” he said. “To the average person that’s not much of a compromise.”
But Clinton offered hope that a “mini-deal” would be possible before the August 2nd deadline, which would stop the United States from defaulting on our debt and deepening the hole we are in by getting our credit downgraded and increasing interest payments. “There are some spending cuts they agree on …and [President Obama] can take those and [get] an extension of the debt ceiling for six or eight months.”
Clinton was critical, however, of Democrats who think they can simply play defense on Medicare and use those tactics to try and win the next election.
“The trick for the Democrats is not to look like our party is defending the status quo,” he said. “The Democrats’ risk is that we’ll be so averse to any changes in the entitlement programs.”
“I think the Democrats do have a responsibility to either embrace the approach recommended in the Bowles-Simpson Commission or some variation thereof,” the 42nd president said. The bipartisan deficit reduction plan was called “The Cat Food Commission” by Keith Olbermann and other on-air liberal activists when it was first released, but Clinton endorsed its outlines as “a model” that could be followed. “The process they followed was an honorable process that produced a credible result and honestly told the American people the truth about the timing.”
In particular, Clinton praised the Bowles-Simpson commission’s plan of revenue increases through closing tax loopholes as well as their recommendations that cuts begin next year to allow the recovery to take hold. He also offered support for lowering the corporate tax-rate to bring it more in line with international standards, while closing loopholes. “When I was President we raised the corporate income tax rates on corporations making over $10 million,” he said. “It made sense when I did it. It doesn’t make sense anymore.”
“That’s not a blink,” Clinton said, describing a package that Democrats could accept. “But if they insist on the mega settlement with no new revenues from any source, not approved in advanced by Grover Norquist…” Clinton stopped as the audience laughed at the absurdity of the outsized influence the un-elected anti-tax activist has on current congressional negotiations. Clinton wasn’t as amused: “You’re laughing, but [Norquist] was quoted in the paper the other day, he was saying he gave the Republican senators permission to vote with [Senator] Diane [Feinstein] on getting rid of the ethanol subsidies. And I thought ‘my God, what has this country come to when one person has to give you permission to do what’s best for the country?’ It was chilling.”
Norquist’s ego may be cheered by a reference from a former president,” but he is increasingly being seen as the symbol the dysfunction in our domestic politics–an ideological activist pushing an all or nothing agenda.
When asked by moderator Ron Brownstein of the National Journal how he would handicap the current 2012 Republican crop of candidates, Clinton said: “I like the governors…Romney’s a much better candidate than he was last time ’cause he’s not apologizing for signing the healthcare bill. He’s got another creative way of saying we ought to repeal Obamacare but that’s probably the price of getting the nomination.”
His other favorite is center-right dark-horse Jon Huntsman. “I just kind of like him. He looks authentic,” Clinton said. “He looks like a real guy…a real human being. I like his family. I like his kind of iconoclastic way. And he was a pretty good governor. He wasn’t a right-wing ideologue.”