Hillary Clinton owes a great deal of her popularity – her shrinking standing in recent polls notwithstanding – to an odd sort of nostalgia surrounding her husband. Rank and file Democrats generally hold him in high esteem and friends and critics alike admire his formidable political skills. Her eight years in the White House give her an aura of, if not actual, experience.
But his recent statement that he was against the war in Iraq “from the beginning” points to the risks involved. Thanks to these almost offhand remarks, Bill once again made the news cycle about him and the potential negative impact on his wife. He also raised the difficult and unhelpful issue of the slippery nature of both Clinton’s positions on the war in Iraq.
The question of whether Bill is good for Hillary’s campaign is still an open, and popular, debate amongst the media. He brings a great deal of experience; he is nearly unmatched when it comes to retail politics – something that clearly can’t be said of his wife; and he is still very popular with Democratic voters.
On the other hand, he has a tendency to overshadow his wife and frequently steps on her media message by creating a series of mini-scandals nearly every time he speaks. And, and as the discussion over his latest remarks made clear, he isn’t without his detractors within his own party.
And that was the interesting aspect of this most recent media flare up: Bill was equally criticized from all sides. The base of the Democratic Party is both fervently anti-war and antagonistic to the “New Democrat” style that defined Bill’s campaigns for the White House.
So his statement was an off note on both substance and style. Substantively, it focused attention on the issue that Hillary thought she had put behind her – the debate leading up to the war - and reminded voters of her awkward straddle on Iraq.
No one really believes that Bill was whole heartedly opposed to the war in Iraq “from the beginning” and no one really believes Hillary’s dodge that the war resolution was about giving Bush more leverage to push for inspections. Democrats seemed willing to put the issue behind them, however, if Hillary was the strongest candidate to take back the White House.
With Barrack Obama’s surge into competitive status in Iowa and New Hampshire, however, voters might be giving the candidate who was really against the war from the beginning a second look. This was not the conversation Hillary wanted to be having.
The controversy also reminded voters of the slippery rhetoric and heavily parsed statements that are part and parcel of the Clintons. And this isn’t only an issue with Republicans. Liberal Democrats have some bitter memories about the wasted opportunities of the Clinton administration. Bill’s statement was a fresh reminder that voting for Hillary means bringing the term “Clintonian” back into circulation.
This issue also raises the question of whether having Bill and Hillary back in the White House isn’t uniquely troubling. Bill is prohibited from assuming an official position should Hillary win office. And she has discussed sending him as some sort of roving ambassador. But is this not a recipe for disaster? What if Bill makes public statements at odds with his wife on an important diplomatic issue? Will he be prevented from dealing with issues where donations to his foundation, or his own massive speaking fees, from foreign sources present a conflict of interest? Who will make these decisions? There is an almost endless stream of difficult questions involved.
Given the nature of their relationship and its history in the White House, it is hard to see the potential for anything but conflict and endless distraction. Having the last Democratic president elected to two terms as your closet friend and advisor surely has its benefits. But having the last president to have been impeached in the White House, as an un-elected and un-firable advisor is also unprecedented and fraught with danger.
If Bill can’t manage to avoid controversy on the campaign trail how are we to believe he will do so should his wife win the election?
The last time a Clinton was elected voters acquiesced in the two-for-one nature of the first couple and came to regret it. One has to hope that this latest media tempest will remind them to think hard before they accept it again.