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Former president Bill Clinton speaks at a student conference for the Clinton Global Initiative University at Arizona State University, Friday, March 21, 2014, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Former President Bill Clinton said Saturday that the supercharged political environment makes cutting the government's long-term debt a difficult task — and cited a recent Republican tax plan as a perfect example.

Clinton told college students at the annual Clinton Global Initiative University conference that the nation should work to gradually reduce the debt as the economy improves. But he said many political leaders are often punished for suggesting the need to raise taxes or reform the current tax system.

The ex-president pointed to a sweeping tax overhaul recently proposed by Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., the chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, which called for eliminating several popular tax breaks to pay for lower overall tax rates. Some of Camp's fellow Republicans have criticized the plan because it includes a new tax on Wall Street banks and imposes a new surtax on some wealthy families.

"Dave Camp, the Republican chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, has just proposed a very interesting set of tax reforms — and, boy, did he get killed by his own crowd," Clinton said.

Before the arrival of super PACs, Clinton said, "you couldn't always depend on a billionaire spending a fortune to run television ads against you to tell everybody how un-American you are...this is a new thing in American history, and on a bipartisan basis we need to reject that."

Clinton urged students to engage in politics and debate issues like debt reduction, offering advice that might be applicable to his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is considering a 2016 presidential campaign.

"Changing the world is a group enterprise," Clinton said. "There's no place for any of us in the peanut gallery. We have to be on the field and playing."

Associated Press,

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