Former President Bill Clinton told an enthusiastic audience of House Democrats on Friday that they "have a real chance to do some phenomenally creative and effective things" after the results of the 2012 election. But he cautioned them against becoming cocksure, warning, "You have to understand about politics, nothing is permanent. It is an ongoing enterprise."
"We should not rely on demography alone," Clinton warned, casting doubt on hopes, expressed by some Democrats, that America's increasing diversity would permanently tilt the electorate in their direction.
Instead, Clinton advised Democrats to continue reaching out: "We should not give up on our ability...to begin a conversation with people who are not as extreme as a lot of the candidates they voted for in the Republican Party."
"It's important not to give up on anybody, to talk to them," he said.
Clinton began his 42-minute remarks, which spanned a wide breadth of political and policy questions, by hailing the diversity of the Democratic caucus as "a good thing," saying the variety of perspectives will prove useful as America operates on increasingly cutthroat global stage. "We're going to live in a more competitive world," he said. "We are going to have to get more comfortable being honest about the results the competition gets," and "The diversity of the representation in the House, I think, will be helpful for that."
The former president interpreted the results of the 2012 election as a product of Americans choosing "an inclusive rather than a divided future," accusing the Republicans of campaigning on "repealing the 20th century."
"I'm too old to re-litigate things that had been settled in the 1960s and 1970s," he joked.
But Democrats cannot simply rebuff Republican reactionaries, Clinton warned: "We now are going to have to have an affirmative agenda for jobs and innovation."
"It's easy to sneer" at Republican attempts to rebrand the GOP, Clinton said, "But it's important to recognize that...general images tend to overcome specific moments, and therefore, this strategy of theirs is not necessarily guaranteed to fail."
The former president outlined a proactive agenda for Democrats on immigration, gun violence, healthcare, and the federal budget, urging his party to "turn into" fights over these issues, "not away from them."
"It's important to do immigration right and to do it as soon as possible," he said.
And on gun violence, the former president, whose 1994 ban on assault weapons was widely seen as an anvil around the neck of many House Democrats who lost their seats in the 1994 election, told Democrats, "I see this whole gun issue as an opportunity, not a toxic landmine. But it depends on how you do it."
"It's important to take some action, now that it is possible, on the issue of gun violence," he said, arguing that the December massacre at an elementary school in Connecticut had had caused plenty of Second Amendment advocates to take a step back and wonder, "If that young man had had to load three times as often as he did, would all those children have been killed?"
On the ongoing fiscal fight consuming Washington, Clinton counseled Democrats to remember, "We do have a long-term debt problem, but that doesn't mean austerity now is the right response."
"If you do not have growth, you cannot fix this debt problem," he said, warning that too much fiscal contraction too soon could actually exacerbate the debt problem.
He also took a swipe what he saw as Republican hypocrisy in the budget debate: "They like austerity when Democrats are president."
And Clinton also advised Democrats to not walk away from healthcare reform simply because they passed it. "We Democrats own the health reform issue now, for good or ill," he said. "We had it, we did it, and there's a lot of good things in that bill, but it really matters how it's implemented."
"We have to do this right," Clinton warned. "We can't keep spending 17.8 percent" of our annual GDP on health care.
He urged Democrats to "stay with it, make it work, prove that we were right to do it."
Clinton's address was well received by the audience, with one member shouting at the outset, "We miss you!"
Clinton replied, laughing, "Sometimes, I miss you. Most of the time. I like what I'm doing."