Former president Bill Clinton’s been sitting on his hands for months, watching his wife Hillary get bruised and battered in the polls. But in a sudden reversal, the Clinton campaign has decided to unleash the “Bubba.” Ten days ago, he appeared in Chicago to start a major fundraising swing. He’s also appearing on talk shows, and taking swipes at the GOP – and of course, the media, too
But can he really “save” Hillary?
Few politicians today have the ability to reverse a candidate’s sagging fortunes like “Bubba” does. Remember Obama in 2012? En route to re-election, the president stumbled badly, and Mitt Romney, who’d been written off as a serious contender, began a late surge. It took Clinton’s appearance at the Democratic Party convention to begin reversing the tide. Clinton offered a brilliant defense of Obama’s first term – one far more convincing than the incumbent could. He followed it up with aggressive campaigning on Obama’s behalf in key states where the president was faltering and could not afford to lose – Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Minnesota, among them – and the tide turned for good.
Bill Clinton’s unstinting defense of Obama undoubtedly gave both Clintons enormous leverage over the White House when it came to setting up a virtual “shadow government” that could allow them to pursue their own foreign policy agenda with impunity. The White House did try to establish a modicum of official regulation of this crass intermingling of public and private power, but, in the end, it seems clear from the evidence that Hillary ultimately ran things as she saw fit, even using much of her official time at State to secure funding and support for Clinton Global Foundation, justifying the effort as one vital to protecting American “interests.”
That’s one reason having Bill Clinton on the campaign trail now is so dangerous. The revelations about the Clinton Foundation – including reports of de facto “pay to play” arrangements from prospective foreign donors — are potentially more damaging than the email scandal, which Hillary is doing her best to contain. In fact, more questions are likely to be raised about how the two operated together in recent years, especially with Bill, more than Hillary, the public face of the foundation abroad. Just as the continuing drip-drip of the email scandal has all but derailed Hillary’s campaign this far, increased scrutiny of the larger Clinton privatization effort – whose scope goes far beyond the accusations once leveled at Dick Cheney over his ties to a private defense contractor, Halliburton – will make it harder for Hillary to stay “on message” as the campaign progresses.
But that’s hardly the only downside. Clinton, for years, has insisted that she is really her “own” woman – indeed, a feminist trailblazer and role model. But she’s grown up politically and professionally in the sprawling shadow of her husband almost from the beginning. She got her first major law job – in the prestigious Rose Law firm – shortly after Bill was elected Arkansas state attorney general. And ever since, she’s basked in her husband’s glow, hoping some of his celebrity and influence would rub off on her, too – which, indeed, it has. Having him stumping for her in 2016, at a time when she’s evidently struggling, will do little to convey a sense of her own strength and efficacy.
In fact, Bill Clinton has often seemed to be undermining his wife’s ambitions, or at least, to be overshadowing them. In 2008, when Barack Obama began challenging Hillary for the nomination, Bill often appeared to speak for her, even crossing a line publicly with criticisms of Barack Obama that alienated many African-American leaders and voters. And still looming in the background is the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and Hillary’s steadfast defense of her husband — which invariably reminds voters that America’s vaunted champion for women is not even her “own” woman – at least not completely – within the confines of her private marriage.
And then there’s the age factor. In an election that’s privileging passion and energy, Bill Clinton may be vulnerable to the criticism that he’s old news, and old magic. Health problems have clearly slowed him down. A week ago, he sat for an interview with CNN correspondent Erin Burnett at – of all places — the headquarters of the Clinton Global Foundation. He seemed like a man going through the motions, like a fragment of his former self – cogent but frail, and utterly lacking in conviction. The foundation audience assembled in the background applauded politely at the end. And Clinton never even mentioned his wife – and Burnett never bothered to ask him. It was just Bill, occupying political center stage.
Hasn’t it always been that way?