Pittsburgh, PA -- President Clinton took the stage at Netroots Nation Thursday night, opening with a joke about how many Republicans think President Obama was born in the United States, teeing off earlier remarks by Rep. Brad Miller. Then he turned serious, crediting the netroots for playing a constructive role in American politics.
"I'd like to thank you for what you do and the contribution you have made to dramatically elevating of our public discourse and the base level of knowledge of people [in politics]," he said at the top of his speech. "I keep a file with me on economics and a file on energy," Clinton continued, "I was looking it through it the other day and was stunned at the number of articles that came from blog sites."
Clinton also credited bloggers for being candid about their policy and partisan preferences. Bloggers takes sides, he told the crowd, and "you don't have to pretend you're not [taking sides]."
The former president turned to a few general issues, saying he hoped to provide "grist" for the mills of the netroots. "It matters whether this Congress passes a comprehensive health care reform bill for this president to sign," Clinton said, to applause, and he later said he has always favored a public option for health care reform.
Clinton declared that the new era of progressive politics could last 30 to 40 years "if we do it right." He reminisced about his time working for Sen. William Fulbright, and noted that after 1968 Republicans managed to build a long-term coalition based on cultural division and corporate economics. Then, taking a page out of the Fox News playbook, Clinton jokingly hurled the c-word at one opponent, arguing that President Nixon looked like a "communist" compared to later, more conservative Republicans.
Then, ticking through recent politics, Clinton credited his successor, George W. Bush, for tapping a new mood in the country by promising compassionate conservatism and a more open, tolerant stance towards immigrants. (Clinton also took a moment to knock Bush v. Gore as "one of the five worst decisions" ever handed down by the Supreme Court.) "America is a different place today," Clinton continued, stressing that "the culture" is now with progressives, based on racial progress and global interdependence. The U.S. will have no "majority race" by 2050, Clinton added.
About 20 minutes into his address, Clinton was briefly interrupted by blogger, Lane Hudson, asking about a repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." First, Clinton joked that the interruption sounded more like a health care town hall. Then he turned serious, answering the question by noting that at the time, Congress built a "veto-proof" majority that would reverse any attempt to admit gays in the military by executive order. The crowd interrupted several times to applaud Clinton's defense. Continuing the multi-point defense, Clinton pointed to the conversion of Gen. John Shalikashvili, who opposed gays in the military at the time, and has since reversed his position. Stressing the complexity of the issue, Clinton said he "hated" what happened and regretted that gays remain excluded from open service in the military.
"While we're at it," the former president continued, "let me say one thing about DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act]." Clinton defended the bill as a means to avoid an anti-gay constitutional amendment that, he argued, would have been worse for gay rights.
Turning back to his prepared remarks, Clinton urged attendees to continue their work on health care. He returned to discussing the blog posts he read, suggesting that some health care posts may be too technical to win over the general public. The former president emphasized that President Obama needed help to win the larger argument and moral imperative of health care reform, and that activists should be careful not to bog down in specifics. Clinton also credited the President for doing a great job at his New Hampshire town hall, and he touched on some of the conservative misinformation that has been percolating about health care reform. Finally, Clinton predicted that even if the public wavers on reform now, once a bill passes, it will draw significant public approval.
Ari Melber is covering Netroots Nation for The Nation magazine, where this piece first appeared, and co-moderating a forum at the convention on Friday.