NEW YORK, NY — “Yes!” a young man cried out, clutching his smartphone with one hand and using the other to push himself out of a throng of people. “I touched him!”
None of the other people gathered in the small courtyard at New York-Presbyterian Hospital on Friday seemed to notice the man’s moment of personal triumph. They continued to clutch their phones and shuffle closer to the 42nd president of the United States, his white hair gleaming in the spring sunshine.
Bill Clinton has crisscrossed New York City, stumping for his wife in the final weeks before Tuesday’s primary, meeting with Albanian-Americans in the Bronx, black churchgoers in Harlem, union workers in Midtown, and others. The former president has made a couple of high-profile mistakes here — including scolding activists for questioning his crime bill and mocking Bernie Sanders’ supporters. But Clinton’s team insists that his star power and gifted politicking will matter far more in the Empire State on Tuesday than his tendency to put his foot in his mouth.
“I think there’s what you see covered in the press and then there’s the impact he has on voters,” said Clinton strategist Jen Palmieri. “He’s effective everywhere but he’s particularly effective in New York. You’ll see how the election turns out, but there’s a reason we use him a lot here.”
Since leaving the White House, Clinton has rebranded himself as a New Yorker — basing his foundation’s offices in Harlem and befriending local politicians. Voters here feel like they know him.
Former President Bill Clinton campaigns in support of his wife at the headquarters of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. (Photo: Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx/AP)
“I love Bill Clinton!” said Marta Reyes, an administrator at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, who came outside to hear him speak on Friday. “I felt so hurt that he couldn’t run another time. And a lot of people felt that way.”
“I came to shake his hand,” said Margaret Gaines, a pharmacy technician at the event. “I want a selfie!”
Bill Clinton doesn’t just offer familiarity; he offers entertainment. The former president’s stump speech, in a refreshing contrast to his wife’s, can be unpredictable. “People are interested in what he says,” said Richard Socarides, a former aide in the Clinton White House who is running to be a Clinton pledged delegate in New York. “He’s still incredibly dynamic and … he’s often quite provocative.”
While Clinton generates excitement and press coverage, he also causes headaches for the much more on-message, conservative Hillary Clinton campaign. The former president has moments when he presents an argument for Hillary in a clear and folksy way that resonates with the room, when his pride in her achievements appears to charm the crowd. But other times, he gets sidetracked defending his own record or legacy, taking him off his wife’s message and occasionally even criticizing Obama. “I think it’s always going to be challenging to find the right balance between his role as a spouse and a role as former president,” Socarides said.
At an event in Philadelphia earlier this month, he shouted at two black protesters who came to speak out against his 1994 crime bill and Hillary Clinton’s advocacy for it. (Hillary Clinton referred to young people who commit violent crimes as “super predators” in 1996; she has since disavowed the term.) “You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter,” Clinton said.
He then launched into a lengthy defense of the bill, which Hillary has distanced herself from, making criminal justice reform a key part of her platform. “Because of that bill, we have a 25-year low in crime, a 33-year low in murder rate,” Bill Clinton said. It took him several minutes to get back to his wife. “Hillary didn’t vote for that bill, because she wasn’t in the Senate,” he finally said, adding that she was the “first candidate” who backed getting nonviolent offenders out of prison.
The Sanders campaign jumped on the exchange. “Our senior statesman should not be mistreating our young activists,” said Sanders surrogate and former head of the NAACP Ben Jealous. “I worry that he thought he was blowing his old dog whistle that day, and he should keep that dog whistle in his pocket.” (Clinton raised the ire of some African-American voters during the 2008 campaign when he referred to Obama’s candidacy as a “fairytale” and compared his presidential run to Jesse Jackson’s. When the Obama campaign objected to these remarks as racially tinged, Clinton argued that they “played the race card” on him.)
Then, on Friday, the former president joked at an event in Fort Washington that Sanders’ message to his young supporters is “just shoot every third person on Wall Street and everything will be fine.“ Sanders shot back on Twitter that the president was “disparaging” the young people who backed him.
It’s not his speeches, however, but rather what comes after them that can cause the most stress for the Clinton campaign. The former president almost never misses the opportunity to greet voters who crowd around him on the rope line after events — and he’s been known to answer questions from reporters who infiltrate the line. According to one Clinton aide, the former president’s press secretary, Angel Urena, follows him closely while Bill works rope lines after his events.
“Every rope line, he’s so stressed,” the aide said of Bill Clinton’s press secretary. “If he wants to answer a question, he’s going to answer the question.”
Even with his missteps and unpredictability, the Clinton campaign is grateful to have a former and largely popular president at hand to fill up organizing rallies and motivate the base. Hillary said at a recent debate that she’s not a “natural” politician like her husband, and it does seem clear that Bill enjoys himself, especially while working the rope line after events. He has heartfelt conversations with voters as others crush in, videotaping him. By the end of his hand shaking and selfie taking and stranger hugging, he will sometimes sprint back for one more voter interaction, like a sugar addict diving back to the candy jar. At a packed event in a Long Island restaurant earlier this month, he appeared to be halfway out of the venue before he dashed back to quickly grab a pink-swaddled baby for one last photo op.
He hoisted the baby above his head as voters squealed in delight.