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Bill Clinton, Paul Ryan headline fiscal summit talks

Bill Clinton began playing a role in presidential politics 40 years ago when he ran Democratic nominee George McGovern’s Texas operation in the Democrats’ ill-fated 1972 campaign. As a candidate, as a strategist and advocate (for his wife in 2008) and as a symbol, Clinton is hard to beat for sheer durability.

Zachary Laux / AP

Former President Bill Clinton speaks at the Times-Union Center's Terry Theater on Friday, May 11, 2012, in Jacksonville, Fla. Clinton's talk was park of Mayor Alvin Brown's economic summit.

So far in this election cycle Clinton has been used by both President Obama’s campaign and by Mitt Romney in his effort to defeat Obama.

Last month, Obama ran an ad of Clinton praising him for ordering the Navy SEAL attack that killed Osama bin Laden. “Suppose they’d been captured or killed. The downside would have been horrible for him,” Clinton said in the ad.

Last week in a speech in Michigan, Romney used Clinton to draw an unflattering contrast to Obama: "President Clinton made efforts to reform welfare as we know it. But President Obama is trying tirelessly to expand the welfare state...."

And on Monday in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, 2008 GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., used Clinton’s free-trade record as president to criticize Obama for not negotiating trade accords with India and other nations.

“After four years, this (Obama) administration still has not concluded or ratified a single free-trade agreement of its own making,” he said, arguing that this was “a shameful record.”

“I know we’re in an election year, and I’m not here to beat up on the administration; that would be easy enough for me to do,” said McCain. “But it requires presidential leadership, and it requires setting priorities. President Clinton set the free-trade agreement between the United States and Canada as a priority, and Congress then reacted.”

Obama, he implied, had failed to display Clinton-like leadership.

Bill Clinton as symbol and a source of wisdom can be a flexible campaign instrument – used in different ways by Democrats and Republicans depending on the circumstances.

Although McCain praised Clinton on Monday, it was quite different back in 2000, when McCain was vying with George W. Bush for the GOP presidential nomination. McCain ran a TV ad in which he accused Bush of running an ad that was allegedly Clinton-like in its dishonesty.

“His ad twists the truth like Clinton. We're all pretty tired of that,” McCain said in his 2000 ad.

And four years ago, when Romney was vying with McCain for the GOP nomination, he used that very same McCain 2000 ad to attack the Arizona senator for daring to draw a similarity between the man whom most Republicans hated (Clinton) and the man whom most of them loved (Bush). “Comparing Bush to Clinton? He was wrong then, and he's wrong about Mitt Romney now,” Romney’s ad said.

On Tuesday at a non-campaign event with implications for the Romney-Obama battle, Clinton will make remarks at the third annual fiscal summit organized by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

Peterson, who served as commerce secretary under President Nixon and later headed Lehman Brothers and the private equity firm the Blackstone Group, has been a champion of reforming the entitlement programs and reducing the national debt.

At last year’s Peterson fiscal summit, Clinton angered progressives by his friendly backstage chat with House Budget Committee chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. It came just a day after Republicans had lost a special House election in upstate New York – in part due to Ryan’s budget proposal to redesign Medicare into a premium support plan with limited payments.

In their backstage tete-a-tete, recorded by an ABC News camera, Clinton told Ryan, “I’m glad we won this race in New York, but I hope the Democrats don’t use it as an excuse to do nothing on Medicare.”

And he cordially invited Ryan to give him a phone call “if you want to talk about it.”

What got lost in some of the ensuing commentary was what Clinton had said about Ryan’s proposal in his on-stage remarks to the Peterson event: “I just think his Medicare proposal is, on the merits, wrong” and would lead to those on Medicare becoming “poorer” or older people would use less  medical care, “get sicker and die quicker.”

The problem, Clinton said, is “rising medical costs. Medicare is a part of a whole health care system than has a toxic rate of inflation and a spending base today that’s not sustainable.”

But having said that, Clinton added, “I applaud Congressman Ryan for making a suggestion” even though “on the merits it doesn’t work.”

The lesson of that New York election was “not that we can’t talk about Medicare and we have to tippy-toe around,” Clinton said at last year’s fiscal summit.

Obama has mocked Romney for using the word “marvelous” to describe Ryan’s budget proposal and Democrats have made the Ryan plan a central issue in House and Senate campaigns this year, which is all the more reason why it will be worth listening to what Clinton has to say about Ryan at this year’s fiscal summit.