ATHENS, Ohio — Former president Bill Clinton looked back wistfully at his younger days while addressing a college audience Tuesday, telling young people born during his presidency what they missed and why their first presidential vote should be for his wife.
“I can tell you, having lost it, that youth matters,” the 70-year-old Democrat told a crowd gathered on a warm day on an iconic college green here Tuesday, as he urged them to help Hillary Clinton overtake Republican Donald Trump in this critical swing state.
“I want to talk about why you should be for Hillary and why you should be for yourselves and why you ought to be optimistic about the future,” Clinton said.
His 50-minute address at Ohio University was sometimes rambling and raw and sometimes rehearsed. He enumerated Hillary Clinton’s many plans — for jobs, college costs, health care and much more. Amid the wonky Clinton facts and figures were more than a few defenses of his own time in office.
He twice offered a somewhat awkward justification of most aspects of the 1994 crime bill that for many young people has come to stand for a culture of mass incarceration and racist prosecution. He gave a classic economic moderate’s explanation of big international trade deals such as NAFTA, the one he signed and which Trump regularly maligns to good effect. They can work when designed and enforced well, he said.
“It’s fine to hold people accountable for their record, but you’ve got to paint the whole picture,” Clinton said after a shouted exchange with a protester reportedly wearing a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt.
Campaigning at the start of a two-day bus tour of small towns and working-class corners of southeastern Ohio, Clinton said Hillary Clinton can build on ideas of shared prosperity he championed as president.
“I believe that we’re making a terrible mistake spending all our time biting each other’s head off, because I believe America is on the verge of being able to grow together with a 21st-century version of broadly shared prosperity, increasing upward mobility, increasing income, decreasing inequality,” Clinton said.
Clinton cast Trump as a charlatan who exploits the disappointments of the white working class that he reminded his audience he himself was born into.
“Hillary’s opponent is just about the best I ever saw at rubbing salt in open wounds. He’s really good at it.”
Clinton then parodied Trump, without ever uttering his name:
“No, I don’t pay taxes but I rub salt in your wound. I know I’ve been deemed the least truthful candidate ever to run by objective analysts, but I rub salt in your wound. What do you care? And no, I didn’t pay my contractors, or hurt people I work with, but I rub salt in your wound.”
The former president spoke as Hillary Clinton has regained an edge nationally of roughly four percentage points in recent polls. Hillary Clinton trails Trump in Ohio by about the same margin. She visited Ohio a day earlier, after being mostly absent from the state for a month that saw Trump gain in Ohio.
Both Clintons, who would be the first spouses ever to have both held the presidency, urged voters to register by the deadline next week and to vote early, also starting next week.
Ohio is second only to Iowa as a battleground state where Clinton has the hardest path. Her campaign acknowledges the difficulty, but has said she has numerous ways to make up for a loss in Ohio, should it come.
Bill Clinton told reporters traveling with him that he thinks Hillary Clinton can win the state.
“The first debate helped,” he said as he shook hands at Third Street Deli in picturesque Marietta. She can succeed if people understand that only she has a plan to improve their lot, Clinton said.
Asked about Trump’s threat to launch personal attacks at the next debate, including about the Clintons’ marriage, Clinton smiled and responded evenly.
“He’s been making those attacks since the beginning of the campaign, so there is nothing new. He should run his campaign, she will run hers. My job is very limited. I’m supposed to tell people why she would be the best choice for president.”
At the university rally, Clinton cleaned up a mess from a day earlier, when he had told a crowd in Michigan that President Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act is “the craziest thing ever.” On Tuesday, Clinton carefully explained that Hillary Clinton wants to keep the health-care system in place but expand and improve on it.
“Look, the Affordable Healthcare Act did a world of good,” but didn’t go as far as Obama and Clinton had both wanted, Bill Clinton said.
But mostly Clinton delivered the kind of tour de force that Americans over age 30 remember well, whether with nostalgia or disdain. And it was undoubtedly the speech of a man no longer young, a “happy grandfather,” as Clinton styled himself, and a moderate Southern Democrat who has seen his slice of the party shrink or tilt to the Republicans.
“I would love to be your age,” Clinton said. “But you’ve got to make these decisions.”
At times he sounded a bit bewildered, and annoyed at the “resentment” he said undergirds the populist strain in this election.
“Like when her opponent says he wants to make American great again, that’s like saying I’ll give you the economy we had 50 years ago,” Clinton said, and listed what he saw as Trump’s arguments:
“And I know you’re disoriented by all this immigration and all these troubles in the world and the rise of all these social movements, you know — the marriage-gay rights debates and all this all other stuff — I know. So make me president, and I will give you the economy you had 50 years ago and move you back up on the social totem pole,” Clinton said.
“That’s the message, isn’t it? Look, that’s like me saying I’d like to be 20 again. Fifty years ago, that’s what I was. And I actually would like to be 20 again because I’d like to see what’s going to happen.”