By Russell Berman - 02/08/13 06:12 PM EST
LANSDOWNE, Va. — Former President Bill Clinton came to the House Democratic retreat here armed with a warning: The Republicans won’t make it as easy for Democrats to win in 2014.
“I think that we should assume going forward that the people who disagree with us, honestly in our approach, will not make it quite as easy to draw the contrast on the things they do and say [as] they did last time,” Clinton told House Democrats in a wide-ranging and largely informal talk that lasted nearly 45 minutes.
“Now that you won this race that was a referendum in large measure on what the American people did not want, we have to create a future that they do want," he said.
Clinton aimed his address at the political opportunities and pitfalls the party will have to navigate as they seek to reclaim the House majority in 2014.
Democrats, Clinton said, need to advance an affirmative agenda on jobs, immigration and gun control without relying solely on the coalition of minorities and young voters who reelected President Obama but who will be harder to turn out to the polls in the midterm election.
“You should not rely on demography alone,” Clinton said.
Clinton urged Democrats to be particularly mindful of gun-owning voters as they pursue legislation to expand background checks, limit high-capacity magazines and ban assault weapons in the wake of the December school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
His advice was not to scale back their proposals but to explain them carefully to people, and especially to those cultural conservatives who some in the party have written off in recent years.
“I see this whole gun issue as an opportunity, not a toxic landmine,” Clinton said. “So turn into this,” he continued. “Treat these people as our friends, our neighbors, people we share a country with.”
As is typical for Clinton appearances before Democratic groups, the former president received a loud ovation from lawmakers both at the beginning and end of his speech. As he took the podium, one member shouted, “We miss you!”
“Sometimes, I miss you,” Clinton replied to laughter.
Clinton cited lessons he learned in 1994, when he watched as Democrats in Congress who supported his agenda on the economy, healthcare and gun control were swept out of office in a Republican wave. He said he spent countless sleepless nights in the White House after that election, thinking both about the Democrats who supported him and lost as well as those who backed him and survived.
His message boiled down to: Get the policy right, but don’t forget about the politics.
“The most important thing I can say to you is this is a job," Clinton told the Democrats. "It is a job. And keeping it requires you to do it and sell it simultaneously.”
Clinton urged the party to craft a clear employment program, saying that while the nation needed a long-term debt-reduction plan, but said, “that doesn’t mean austerity is the right response.”
“If you do not have growth, you cannot fix this debt problem,” Clinton said.
He also cautioned Democrats not to “walk away” from healthcare as an issue just because the overhaul they supported is now enacted into law. Implementation of the law would be important to the party’s future success because, he said, “we Democrats now own health reform for good or ill.”
If the healthcare law needs to be changed, Clinton said, Democrats “need to be caught trying to change [it].”
“Stay with this. Make it work. Prove that we were right to do it,” he said.