Former President Bill Clinton showed some of his old political touch in Billings on Friday, but he told a crowd at Middle James Middle School that this year’s presidential campaign is not about the past.
“I’m not trying to take you back in time,” he said. “I’m getting you to look forward.”
Clinton was campaigning for his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who opened a campaign office at 2525 Sixth Ave. N. in Billings this week. She is within fewer than a hundred delegates of wrapping up the Democratic Party nomination over U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who drew a crowd of 3,000 to the Montana Pavilion at MetraPark on May 11.
Friday night’s event was a more casual affair. A long line waited to go in when the doors opened at 6:30 p.m., but the line moved quickly without security measures. By a quarter to seven, the gym was nearly full, and the line was nearly gone.
A large area roped off for the media was opened to late arrivals shortly before the speech began. The crowd of perhaps 500 people showed a wider age range than at Sanders’ rally, which was dominated by young people. Friday night’s crowd ranged from babes in arms to old party stalwarts, with a mix of young and middle-aged people as well.
Some carried signs, and at least one wore a T-shirt reading “Bill for 1st Dude.” Among those waiting was Carol Mick, wearing a red, white and blue spangled baseball cap and a T-shirt that read “We need a president who will fight for strong public schools in every ZIP code and every community across the country. I want to be that president.—Hillary Clinton.”
Mick said she is supporting Hillary Clinton because “we don’t have time to train anybody. … She knows how to do it, and she still listens to the people.”
Singer and songwriter Star Nayea, who was in town from Seattle for a meth conference, provided pre-speech music on behalf of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council. Asked why she is backing Hillary Clinton, she said, “She’s a woman, No. 1.” She added, “I love Bernie, too,” but she said that Bill Clinton was the first president she ever voted for and that she had “an immense amount of respect for Hillary.”
Montana legislators Robyn Driscoll and Margie MacDonald introduced the former president. Driscoll called him the “next presidential spouse” and said that electing Hillary Clinton would help her daughter compete with men for jobs and wages, help her grandson live in a world of diversity and help the nation remain envied and respected around the world.
MacDonald said that Hillary Clinton sent her an autographed copy of her 1996 book “It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us” after MacDonald helped lead a campaign against anti-Semitic hate in Billings.
“She will not back down or give up on her powerful mission,” MacDonald said.
In classic Clinton style, the former president combined folksy anecdotes, touches of humor and wonkish policy details in his 40-minute speech. He only briefly mentioned his wife’s likely opponent in November, Donald Trump, noting that Republicans have nominated a guy who says he has $10 billion but won’t show his tax returns.
He said the United States is doing better than any other major economy in the world and has created more jobs in the Obama presidency than in any other administration since the last Democrat held the office—allowing the audience to reflect on who that was.
“We’re first or second in the world in every scientific survey,” he said, “and our party still believes in science.”
But he acknowledged that many Americans feel that things are out of their control, in part because 80 percent of Americans have not received a pay raise since the Great Recession. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is just code for “You’ve been shafted. I’m going to make it the way it used to be,” Clinton said.
“Bridges,” he said, “work better than walls.” Even if the bridges need a few speed bumps to slow things down, that’s still better than building walls, he said.
Why try to recover the past, he asked, when we could ride on an escalator together.
He laid out a series of policy proposals, among them:
♦ Increasing the minimum wage.
♦ Moving toward clean energy and smart manufacturing to create new jobs.
♦ Tightening overtime regulations, as the Obama administration has just done.
♦ Turning on the Small Business Administration “spigot” to get more loans to small businesses.
♦ Preserving Dodd-Frank restrictions on Wall Street.
♦ Reducing student debt by allowing students to refinance loans and by giving students who spend time in AmeriCorps or other public service work $23,500 tax-free to reduce their debt.
♦ Increasing the focus in schools on skills training.
♦ Setting a minimum tax rate for the wealthiest Americans.
♦ Providing tax breaks for those who invest in impoverished communities, such as on Indian reservations. “There are too many places left out and left behind,” he said.
♦ Passing immigration reform.
♦ Releasing nonviolent offenders more quickly.
♦ Awarding tax credits to companies that share their profits by activities and investments that benefit the nation. Some companies focus only on profits, he said.
“Their shareholders say, ‘We don’t care about the workers,’” he said. “Often they don’t even care about the customers.”
He said that Hillary Clinton is the best candidate to break congressional gridlock because she had a history when she was in the U.S. Senate of working with Republicans to pass legislation for children’s healthcare, to increase adoptions out of foster care, to help New York City after 9-11 and to improve equipment and healthcare for the military.
He said her focus always has been on finding a way to make something good happen.
“She’s spent a lifetime saying, ‘What are we going to do about it?’” he said.
He urged Montanans to give her their support “not because you’re against somebody else but because you want to build a bridge.”
In characteristic fashion, Bill Clinton lingered long after his speech to shake hands with and talk to many in the crowd, accompanied by Secret Service agents as he slowly worked his way around a rail that separated him from those who wanted to see him up close.
“He’s still good,” said Angie Cormier as the crowd slowly dissipated. He sounded as if he could still run for president, she said, “but I’m glad it’s Hillary.”