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Clinton Offers Rx For Ailing Democrats

The spring 2010 collection of Vera Wang is presented during Fashion Week in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009.
AP Photo/Richard Drew
Former President Bill Clinton says it's time for the Democratic Party to put November's devastating election losses behind them and move on.

"So we lost a couple of elections," Mr. Clinton told a meeting of Democratic leaders in New York Tuesday. "Big deal ... Take a deep breath, rear back and go on."

In an hour-long speech, delivered with vintage Clinton flair, the former president touched on a wide range of issues, national and global, political and personal.

Mr. Clinton acknowledged the errors Democrats had made and laid out an agenda to get the party back on track. He said the recent elections -- in which the Republicans recaptured control of the Senate and firmed up their majority in the House -- should serve as a wake-up call to the Democratic faithful, but not make them panic or abandon their beliefs.

"Democrats have to have ideas to win," Mr. Clinton told the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist group he's long been associated with. "Republicans will always have more money and the fervor of right-wing ideas."

He said Democrats need to present a unified message to voters. They don't need to become more liberal, he said, but have to become more relevant in a positive way.

"The most important thing we have to do is to get our ideas out there. I still believe ideas and results matter when people hear evidence over ideology."

Mr. Clinton conceded, though, that some of the negative results in November were attributable to the previous year's terrorist attacks.

"I don't think you can overestimate the psychological impact of Sept. 11," he said.

And in such a climate of fear and insecurity, he said, Republicans were able to appeal to voters by appearing strong and confident on national security matters, while Democrats appeared to be floundering.

"When people are insecure, they'd rather have someone strong and wrong, rather than weak and right."

But Mr. Clinton said the pressure was now on the GOP to come through with their promises. "The Republicans have what they want – the White House and Congress. So presumably they'll have to stop playing the blame game."

On other issues, Mr. Clinton:

  • said he approves of international efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein, but thinks the focus of the U.S. anti-terrorism efforts should be al Qaeda, not Iraq.

  • said he thinks the new Department of Homeland Security – which, he noted, was originally a Democratic idea, proposed by Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Ct., and opposed by President Bush – "will probably do more good than harm, but it's not enough."

  • blasted Republican tax policies as "bad ethics, bad policy and horrible economics."

  • said Democrats need to hold Republicans to their pledge to enforce new corporate responsibility laws, but not be seen as the anti-business party. "We've got to be pro-business and pro-accountability," Mr. Clinton said.

  • called for more foreign aid, more debt relief and more money for international AIDS care as part of a foreign policy aimed at making the United States more friends and fewer enemies abroad.

    Mr. Clinton concluded by saying that although it wouldn't be easy for Democrats to regain their political edge, "I think we ought to be optimistic and I think we ought to be strong."

    "You chose to be Democrats," he said. "Nobody made you."

    By Joel Roberts