The last time Bill Clinton spoke in Greenville, S.C., he found himself in the line of fire – from other Democrats.
They accused him of making racially insensitive remarks about then-Sen. Barack Obama ahead of the 2008 South Carolina primary. Others called his statements about Obama “character assassination.” A “truth squad” followed the former president, alert for any slams at Obama.
The controversy angered many African-American voters, helping ensure his wife’s loss to Obama in the 2008 South Carolina primary.
When the former president returned Tuesday, he found a friendlier reception.
“Bill Clinton is a friend of the African-American community, and Hillary as well,” said Ray Lattimore, 55, a Greenville business owner. “Everybody understands, it’s politics.”
Speaking to 350 people at the West End Community Development Center, Clinton cast his wife as a pragmatic “change agent.” He avoided mentioning her opponent, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, though he said her policies are more pragmatic.
In a rare occurrence, it was the second visit by a former president in South Carolina in as many days. And it was Clinton’s successor, former President George W. Bush, who drew fire from his own party.
Bush campaigned for his brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, on Monday in North Charleston days ahead of Saturday’s GOP primary. New York billionaire Donald Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner, ripped the former GOP president in South Carolina this week, calling the Iraq war “a big, fat mistake” and saying the former president “lied” about weapons of mass destruction. He also blamed Bush for 9/11.
Earlier this week, Bill Clinton seemed to express frustration with Sanders during an appearance in Florence, S.C. Talking about Sanders’ health care plan, Clinton said, “Every time we try to have this debate, they say, ‘You don’t understand … You’re part of the establishment.’ ”
The Washington Post quoted former Obama adviser David Axelrod saying Clinton “is an incomparable genius when it comes to politics – except when it comes to his wife. It clouds his judgment.”
On Tuesday, Clinton steered clear of controversy, even as he addressed the anger that’s pushing voters to some candidates. The economy, he said, was still feeling the effects of recession, and though jobs have started to come back, wages have not.
“So you get working people saying, ‘What about me?’ And you’ve got young people and millennials saying, ‘What about me?’ ” he said.
The night she lost the New Hampshire primary, Hillary Clinton acknowledged that her lack of support from young people contributed to her defeat. On Tuesday, her husband appealed to young voters drawn to Sanders’ call for free tuition at public colleges.
“They’re right to be mad,” he said. “But I think she’s got the best plan.”
He said Hillary Clinton would allow students to refinance their student debt, something he said could help 25 million people. He said she would also limit interest rates and allow longer payoffs. And jobs in public service, including teaching, would cut the debt burden.
“She wants to make sure everybody can work debt-free,” he said.
He also talked about her proposals to improve the Affordable Care Act, which he contrasted with Sanders’ call for “Medicare for all.” Clinton said it’s a “mistake” to start a new health care overhaul from scratch. He suggested her more detailed policies aren’t always an easy sell.
“It’s harder for her to have a bumper-sticker campaign,” he said.
Some who came to hear him said they’re already sold on the former secretary of state.
“I think her experience speaks for itself,” said Kenneth Bixby, a 47-year-old health care worker. “She can point to her record.”
Lattimore, the business owner, also plans to vote for Clinton.
“I’m voting for Hillary this time,” he said. “Unless Obama runs again.”