The Gospel According to Bill Clinton

BY Gwen Ifill  May 27, 2011 at 1:47 PM EST

It never gets old listening to Bill Clinton. Like a thoroughbred watching the race from the sidelines, he is always champing at the bit to get back on the track.

That became clear once again this week when I was invited to interview the 42nd President during the opening session of deficit hawk Peter G. Peterson’s “Solutions for America’s Future” conference.

It was a purposefully bipartisan affair, with think tanks on the right and left asked to submit proposals, and Republicans and Democrats holding forth on fascinating, but deeply wonky, panel discussions.

I’d spent some time covering the Clinton presidency – (“eight years giving me hell,” he reminded me backstage) – and was there for the good old days of federal surpluses.

The former president was, of course, happy to talk about what went right with his presidency and to wax on in some detail about the best way to balance budgets. But it was also instantly clear that Mr. Clinton really wanted to talk politics.

In the course of an hour, he advised Democrats on how to capitalize on the surprise win in the New York special election that turned out to be an early test of the power of the Medicare debate. He hinted that President Obama had been a tad clumsy in his handling of the issue of returning to Israel’s 1967 borders. And he suggested that, in the end, President Obama had given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cover by allowing him to concede for the first time in public that Israel would cede some land for peace. (Watch the full video here).

Democrat Kathy Hochul’s upset win in New York’s 26th Congressional district had occurred only the night before we spoke. So when I asked Mr. Clinton whether Americans are willing to slay sacred cows in the name of balancing the budget, he veered almost immediately into deconstructing NY-26.

The outcome was, without a doubt he said, a rebuke of a Republican plan to revamp Medicare.

“You should conclude the proposal in the Republican budget isn’t the right one,” he said, as that plan’s author Rep. Paul Ryan stood just a few feet away backstage. But he had a warning for his own party too.

“I’m afraid that the Democrats will draw the conclusion that because Congressman Ryan’s proposal, I think, is not the best one, that we shouldn’t do anything,” he said. “I would completely disagree with that.”

He said some version of this three times, each time taking direct aim at Ryan, who’s been having a hard time selling his plan lately even to members of his own party. “I think he’s wrong to say no matter what happens and no matter what the circumstances are, we won’t touch taxes,” Mr. Clinton said of Ryan.

Moments later, the two men encountered each other as the president exited and Ryan headed on stage to be interviewed by CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo. As they chatted briefly, Mr. Clinton turned to the young Congressman and said, “Give me a call.”

The man can’t help it. He loves giving advice.

That’s why even though I was supposed to focus during our discussion on the budget and deficits debate, I had the sneaking feeling he might not mind weighing in on the flap that had erupted in the past several days between Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu.

After dismissing the conflict between the two leaders as a “tempest in a teapot” – Mr. Obama had spoken of returning to the 1967 borders with land swaps as a basis for Israeli-Palestinian negotiation – a common “reference point,” said President Clinton, who has sat at his share of negotiating tables.

“Remember what Prime Minister Netanyahu said yesterday amidst all the things that are in the headlines,” he added. “He also said that if he made a peace agreement with the Palestinians, he was well aware he would have to give up so much of the West Bank –that not all the settlements would be included, and he would have to close some. And I think that has been totally overlooked.”

After he had continued for some minutes deconstructing the peace process, I suggested to President Clinton that, with George Mitchell’s exit, the U.S. could use a new Middle East envoy.

He actually paused at that. Then he caught himself. The Secretary of State, he allowed, is doing a fine job. The audience roared, the kind of self-knowing laughter that always seems to follow Bill Clinton around.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.