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September 2, 2014

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POLITICAL MEMO:

Bill Clinton leads the cheering section for Harry Reid

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Scott Harrison/Retna/www.harrisonphotos.com

Former President Bill Clinton hosts a campaign rally for Sen. Harry Reid at Andre Agassi Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas on June 10, 2010.

Harry Reid rally

Former President Bill Clinton arrives at a campaign rally for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Thursday at the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy. Launch slideshow »
Harry Reid

Harry Reid

Leave it to Bill Clinton to capture the political zeitgeist in an old Cajun joke.

There he was, the former president and one-time Arkansas governor, doing his best Southern revival act in a high school gymnasium in West Las Vegas last week, rallying a restive Democratic base for the embattled Harry Reid. Clinton recalled an old Justin Wilson joke, wherein a guy named Pierre falls victim to the shenanigans of Jean Louis, who repeatedly crushes the expensive cigars in his front suit pocket. Looking for payback, Pierre replaces the cigars with dynamite.

A friend, Ramon, points out the folly: “The next time he does it, he’s going to blow you to pieces.”

Pierre’s response: “I know, but at least I’ll blow his hand off.”

Clinton drove his point home. “That’s the kind of thing you do if you make decisions when you’re mad,” he said. “To blow the other guy’s hand off, you blow yourself up. Why would you give away the Senate majority leader who has delivered time and time and time again for the people of Nevada?”

Aimed squarely at the Tea Party movement and the anti-incumbent fervor animating American politics, Clinton’s speech comes at a crucial time for Reid, who has failed to shore up his base as he enters what promises to be a rough-and-tumble campaign for re-election. Facing only nominal opposition in his primary last week, Reid won just 75 percent of the Democratic vote, with 11 percent casting ballots for “none of these candidates.”

Public opinion polling confirms the problem in the general election. In a poll conducted for the Las Vegas Review-Journal this month, Reid won 73 percent of Democrats in a head-to-head matchup against his Republican opponent, former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who has a tighter grip on her base. The survey found Reid failing to reach 50 percent in Clark County, the state’s Democratic stronghold, and splitting unaffiliated voters with Angle. The result: a dead heat.

For his part, Reid dismisses the polling, focusing instead on November’s bloated ballot. He often tells reporters that voters will decide among himself, a Republican, a Tea Party candidate, an Independent American, four nonpartisans — and “none of these candidates,” a category that saved him from retirement in 1998. (That year, as Reid eked out a razor-thin victory over John Ensign, 8,113 people voted for “none of these candidates.”)

Still, for Reid to win re-election he must strike the right balance, shoring up the liberals who think he hasn’t pushed hard enough on key issues such as health care and immigration reform while winning over independents who think Obama administration initiatives such as the stimulus package have gone too far.

So far, Reid and Obama have failed to articulate a message that captures both crowds.

Last week, Clinton, known as the Big Dog in Democratic circles, showed them the way, cutting through the noise with a simple theme for Reid’s campaign: “It’s not his fault.”

Republicans, of course, will aggressively argue that it is.

Reminding the party faithful of the prosperity and budget surpluses that accompanied his presidency, Clinton sought to focus anger over Nevada’s record unemployment and foreclosure rates on a favorite target of the left — his successor, George W. Bush. “The next administration came in and reversed everything I did,” he said, eliciting boos from the crowd. Clinton noted lackluster job creation and the growing deficit during the Bush years, in addition to the administration’s penchant for deregulation.

“When you get in that deep a hole, the first rule is to stop digging,” he said. “In 2006, when Harry Reid became the Senate majority leader, the American people voted to stop digging. Then we had to get ourselves out of this hole. I know people are frustrated, but you can’t do this overnight.”

(Not mentioned was the fact that eliminating the Glass-Steagall act’s separation of Wall Street investment banks and conventional banks — a move many believe exacerbated the financial crisis — happened while Clinton was in office.)

He defended the Obama administration initiatives Reid has shepherded through Congress, saying the stimulus package included tax cuts for low- and middle-income people, helped plug state budget deficits and provided money for renewable energy projects, positioning Nevada to become the country’s first energy-independent state in the next decade. Clinton said he would have done the same thing, continuing the analogy: “The stimulus package kept us from digging when we were in the hole ... Harry Reid is there trying to do what makes sense to get us back on our feet.”

For liberals disappointed with health care legislation, Clinton detailed some highlights, such as allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26 and enabling those with pre-existing conditions to obtain health insurance, while saying it provided a foundation for further reforms.

Reid’s campaign entered the general election last week with its own message: “No one can do more.” It began airing two ads that focus on Reid’s work fostering the renewable energy industry in Nevada, including passing solar energy tax credits and getting hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money for projects such as a transmission line between White Pine and Clark counties. The campaign continued its breathless attacks against Angle, highlighting the Republican’s lightning-rod policy positions, such as phasing out Medicare and Social Security.

For Reid, however, the most important message may have been delivered by Clinton to a gymnasium of Democrats last week: “You have to promise yourself you will leave here and spend every opportunity between now and Election Day talking to the people who aren’t here.”

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