The excesses of Donald Trump, now capped by his 2005 “ode to women” videotape, has obscured another question raised by this extraordinary presidential campaign, involving another larger than life figure. Has Bill Clinton, widely described as the most gifted politician of his era, lost his mojo? Or in other words, is he now more hindrance than help in his wife’s own bid for the White House?
The doubts arose earlier this summer, when he held an unscheduled hour-long airport meeting with the attorney general Loretta Lynch, head of the Justice Department, at the very moment the FBI was making up its mind whether to prosecute his wife for sending classified documents on her private email server. The problem of course is that it’s the Justice Department that oversees the FBI. As a possible instance of trying to obstruct the course of justice, they don’t come more blatant.
And then last week he put his foot in it again, calling Obamacare – the signature achievement of a president with whose fate Hillary’s own is linked – a “crazy system”. It was a throwaway line and taken out of context, but this weekend it’s front and centre in a new Republican attack ad, running in every battleground state in the land.
Now Bill Clinton may not be the main reason his wife has failed to put away Donald Trump. He also remains a hugely potent fundraiser, and a very effective speaker, uniquely able to make complicated issues sound simple. His speech at Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, was a masterclass – as was his finely calibrated and deeply personal speech about Hillary at the Democratic gathering in Philadelphia this time around. But out on the campaign trail, the old magic has faded.
Maybe it’s the advancing years. But above all Bill Clinton is a man of the past. He last ran for elected office 20 years ago. A voter today has to be 38 to remember what it was like when he was president. In fact, times were pretty good; the Cold War was over, America’s pre-eminence was unchallenged, and the economy was so strong that the federal budget was even in surplus. And some of the sepia glow lingers still.
People who will flee America if Donald Trump wins
People who will flee America if Donald Trump wins
1/8 Miley Cyrus
'God’ he thinks he is the f***ing chosen one or some shit! … Honestly f*** this sh*t I am moving if this is my president! I don’t say things I don’t mean!'
Jemal Countess/Getty Images
2/8 Whoopi Goldberg
'I don’t think that’s America. I don’t want it to be America. Maybe it’s time for me to move you know'
3/8 Samuel L. Jackson
'If that mother**er becomes president, I’m moving my black ass to South Africa'
4/8 Raven Symone
'My confession for this election is, if any Republican gets nominated, I’m gonna move to Canada with my entire family. Is that bad? I already have my ticket. I literally bought my ticket, I swear'
'If he were to be elected, I'm moving to Jupiter'
6/8 Neve Campbell
'I’m terrified. It’s really scary. My biggest fear is that Trump will triumph. I cannot believe that he is still in the game ... [I'll] move back to Canada'
7/8 Jon Stewart
'I would consider getting in a rocket and going to another planet, because clearly this planet’s gone bonkers'
8/8 Randy Blythe
'He could just be a clown. If he is the president, though, I am leaving America 'till he's gone'
Even now his approval rating is a healthy 53 per cent, down on what it was a year or two ago but far higher than his wife’s. But Clinton is no longer the central figure he once was. The current President’s popularity (rather more important for Hillary’s chances) is now as great, if not greater. Her most effective campaign surrogates are Obama and his wife Michelle, while local Democratic bosses in search of a big-name speaker are as likely to ask for Vice-President Joe Biden or populist superstar Senator Elizabeth Warren as they are Bill.
Ironically, the greatest service he renders Hillary stems from his most egregiously bad behaviour – the marital infidelities, from Gennifer Flowers to Monica Lewinsky, that have kept tabloid headline writers in business for decades.
After murmuring darkly for weeks that he might raise the topic, Donald Trump has promised not to during Sunday’s town-hall debate with Hillary – “I want to win this election on my policies for the future, not on Bill Clinton’s past,” he said last week. But that was before publication of the repulsively lewd tape obtained by The Washington Post. “Locker room banter,” Trump called it, claiming to have heard far worse from Bill Clinton on the golf course. And his were only words, while Clinton had matched his with deeds, and his wife had moved heaven and earth to discredit and silence her predator-husband’s victims.
Trump though should think hard. The lesson of 25 years of Republican efforts to “get” Bill Clinton, whether through smear campaigns, special prosecutors, or ultimately the nuclear weapon of impeachment, is that when Bill’s bad behaviour is front and centre, public sympathy for his wife as wronged woman tends to grow. Were Trump to raise the issue, he might trigger a rare and spontaneous “human moment” from Hillary, otherwise a candidate who seems so calculating, prepared and programmed.
Bill’s biggest drawback however lies in the very prospect of a Clinton restoration. What could await America is truly remarkable. A couple of times sons have followed fathers to the White House, but never before has a president followed his or her spouse into the Oval Office.
America moreover has come late to the idea of a female leader. Bill will be the first “First Gentleman” – and once again, all too probably, the Clinton marital psychodrama will be thrust to the forefront of the national consciousness. Old scandals, real and imagined, will resurface. New ones will be unearthed or fabricated, the nature of their relationship will again be minutely parsed.
Back in 1992 Bill ran with the sales pitch of “two for the price of one”. Voting Democrat meant you got a brace of Clintons: the one on the ballot, but also his super-competent wife, no great homemaker (or, perish the thought, cookie-baker) but a redoubtable public policy expert. He entrusted her with the health care reforms whose crushing rejection by Congress in 1994 scarred his first term.
Is that still the deal? Hillary naturally dismisses any suggestion of a co-presidency, but equally he won’t be choosing the china for state dinners and supervising decorations of the White House Christmas tree. Instead she has hinted at an advisory role, especially on economic matters where memories of Bill Clinton’s administration are fondest. He will also function as private sounding board for his wife, and surely also as an informal ambassador. With the exception perhaps of Obama, no American politician is more liked and admired around the world.
But will this peripheral role be enough when the levers of the power he once exercised are so close at hand? Clinton’s appetite for knowledge remains omnivorous. He’s always loved the limelight, and hates being ignored. He also hates having nothing much to do, and golf won’t fill the void.
It’s hard to see the Clinton Foundation offering much of an outlet either, given the controversy that already swirls around it, and the accusations of cash for access – all of them unproven but which would only multiply with the Foundation’s driving force ensconced once more in the White House.
But history’s lesson is plain. When Clinton has time on his hands, he has a habit of getting into trouble. As Hillary herself once put it, “he’s a hard dog to keep on the porch”. Campaign 2016 has already proved it.Reuse content