To some partisans, it may sound jarring: President Barack Obama talks about how he and former rival John McCain were simpatico in 2008 while Mitt Romney fondly recalls Bill Clinton’s White House tenure.
Yet lauding the prominent elder statesmen from the opposing party has become a regular feature of the 2012 presidential race, with Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, using Clinton to score points against Obama the same way the president seeks such an advantage by invoking McCain.
The primary goal of these efforts is to appeal to independent voters, said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University in Houston.
“It’s a way of showing a kind of largesse” toward the opposition while also painting your current campaign rival as an extremist, Brinkley said. “It’s a constant in politics.”
For Obama, praising McCain is “a way to say that Romney is more of a right-wing ideologue,” Brinkley said. Romney is doing “the exact same thing” when he touts Clinton’s accomplishments -- depicting Obama as overly partisan, he said.
Positive comment by Romney about Clinton also lets the former Massachusetts governor show himself as “not just beating up on all Democrats,” Brinkley said.
“And because Obama actually beat McCain,” the president’s favorable remarks about him are “a subliminal way of earmarking that he’s going to be able to beat Romney,” Brinkley said.
Obama has made positive public mentions of McCain, an Arizona senator, at least six times over the last two months, including telling donors at a June 14 fundraiser hosted by actress Sarah Jessica Parker in New York City how much he had agreed with his rival on issues central to their 2008 battle.
Romney similarly has invoked Clinton, the former Democratic president, at least four times over the same period, including extolling him as a “mainstream” leader who worked with Republicans to shrink government and overhaul the welfare system.
Romney joins a list of Republicans who now praise Clinton, including some who tried to oust him from office after disclosure of his relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. These include McCain, an impeachment supporter who recently has been praising Clinton for U.S. intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s as a way of encouraging Obama to do the same in Syria.
Obama’s most recent public shout-outs to McCain came since the president on June 15 announced his decision to end the deportations of some illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. He’s twice given McCain credit for earlier efforts to overhaul the immigration system that included providing a pathway to U.S. citizenship for some illegal immigrants, proposals which Romney has opposed.
In a June 22 speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, Obama referred to a legislative effort while he was a U.S. senator from Illinois. McCain aligned himself with a measure pushed by the late Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and then-President George W. Bush, a Republican.
“Just six years ago an unlikely trio, John McCain, Ted Kennedy, President Bush, came together to champion comprehensive immigration reform,” Obama said. “I, along with a lot of Democrats, were proud to join 23 Senate Republicans in voting for it.”
At the $40,000-a-plate dinner eight days earlier at actress Parker’s townhouse, Obama said, “In some ways, this election is more important than 2008 -- because in 2008, as much as I disagreed with Mr. McCain, he believed in climate change. He believed in campaign finance reform. He believed in immigration reform.”
As he made these points to underscore his differences with Romney, many in the audience, which included actress Meryl Streep, nodded in agreement.
At a June 12 dinner in Philadelphia where tickets cost a minimum of at least $10,000 a person, Obama said there were “certain baselines” he and McCain agreed on. By contrast, Obama said, Romney is “pretty much in sync with the vision of the House Republican Party” and its focus on slashing taxes for the wealthiest and killing government regulations.
McCain spokesman Brian Rogers questioned Obama’s invocation of his former rival.
“If he and President Obama share so many priorities and are in such agreement, why didn’t the president or his staff ever reach out to Senator McCain to work on them?” Rogers said yesterday.
Romney spotlighted Clinton in making his argument that Obama has hurt the country by pushing for excessive government spending.
“President Clinton said the era of big government was over,” Romney said in a May 8 speech in Lansing, Michigan, referring to the former president’s 1996 State of the Union address. “President Obama brought it back with a vengeance,” Romney added.
Romney a week later elaborated on a distinction between Obama and Clinton over the role of government -- and suggested a personal rift between the two was involved.
“President Obama tucked away the Clinton doctrine in his large drawer of discarded ideas, along with transparency and bipartisanship,” Romney said in Des Moines on May 15. “It’s enough to make you wonder if maybe it was a personal beef with the Clintons, but probably it runs much deeper than that.”
Clinton forged his own link with Romney when he weighed in on Obama campaign attacks on the Republican’s background as a private-equity executive who co-founded Boston-based Bain Capital LLC.
Clinton called Romney’s service at Bain “sterling” during a May 31 CNN interview, and said that his business career “crosses the qualification threshold” for the presidency, even as he predicted an Obama victory in November.
Romney embraced the comments, and put his own spin on them.
“No wonder Bill Clinton and so many other mainstream Democrats are revolting against the backward direction President Obama is taking his party and our country,” he said June 15 in Stratham, New Hampshire.
In a subsequent interview with PBS, Clinton said it’s “much more relevant” to look at what Romney did as governor and what he says he’d do as president.
Clinton’s spokesman Matt McKenna declined to comment.
Litany of Attacks
Adding to the oddity of these efforts is the litany of attacks by Obama and Romney against the men they now frequently acclaim.
Throughout the 2008 campaign, Obama linked McCain to then-President George W. Bush and sought to depict the senator as out-of-touch.
“It’s not because John McCain doesn’t care,” Obama said in his 2008 nomination acceptance speech. “It’s because John McCain doesn’t get it.”
Romney was critical of Clinton’s policies when he ran against Kennedy in Massachusetts’ 1994 Senate race, deriding the then-president for raising taxes.
Romney also took a shot at Clinton at a Jan. 26 debate with his rivals in the Republican nomination race, as he explained why he voted for former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary.
“In my state of Massachusetts you could register as an independent and go vote in either primary,” Romney said. “Any chance I got to vote against Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy, I took.”
----With assistance from John McCormick in Chicago. Editors: Don Frederick, Robin Meszoly