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The Bill Factor


Is the nation experiencing nostalgia for Bill Clinton? (AP).

The great thing about being a former president is the public likes you as much if not more than it did while you were in office. The ebbs and flows of history generally tend to be kind to former presidents, reevaluating their tenures more favorably than they might have appeared at the time. That's why, for instance, some 60 percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup last year said they approved of the way Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford did their job, even though both were unceremoniously dumped by voters in their day.

Bill Clinton continues to defy gravity, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. The survey found that 66 percent of Americans now approve of the way he ran his presidency, up from 55 percent in 2003 and an average of 60 percent in polls in his last year in office. As The Trail's Dan Balz and Jon Cohen write in this morning's Post, that is certainly a plus for his wife's campaign to win back the White House. Many voters even overtly want an extension, in effect, of the Clinton presidency.

But the former president's potential baggage for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) has yet to be directly tested in today's campaign arena. At the moment, he benefits by comparison to President Bush, who is as unpopular as his predecessor is popular. Nostalgia for the peace and prosperity of the 1990s and the memory of a seemingly more competent, less ideological leadership contributes to Clinton's strength. Yet none of the candidates running against Hillary Clinton has really tried to remind voters of the less salutary aspects of the Clinton White House years. The few times they have gingerly tiptoed into a discussion of the unsavory elements of the Clinton years, they immediately retreated.

Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) told an audience that it was time to move past "a corrupt and corroded system" and said "the Lincoln Bedroom is not for rent." Michelle Obama, speaking for her husband, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), said the next president should be someone who "respects family," adding that "if you can't run your own house, you can't run the White House." Sen. Joe Biden (Del.) during a debate asserted that Hillary Clinton could not be effective because of all "the old stuff," but then quickly added that he was referring to "policy, policy."

The Norman Hsu fundraising scandal managed to do what the other candidates have not in raising the specter of past Clinton troubles. Appearing on "The Chris Matthews Show," Andrea Mitchell of NBC News said: "Up until now, Bill Clinton has been a complete plus among Democratic primary voters for Hillary Clinton. But now with the Norman Hsu money-raising controversy, for the first time there's a real concern in the Clinton camp that this is real baggage from the Clinton White House years." She said the stress within the Clinton team was so pronounced that "there was a shouting match observed among Clinton staffers in public."

Hillary Clinton's rivals are afraid of taking on Bill Clinton too directly because of those numbers in the Post-ABC poll -- Bill Clinton is practically an icon among Democrats. Yet someone somewhere presumably has compilied the dossier to be used against him when the order is given; the question is whether fellow Democrats will do so during the primaries or let it wait until Republicans get their chance in the fall, assuming Hillary Clinton captures the nomination. It's easy to imagine the television ad some independent group could air, a quickly rotating parade of pictures evoking the seedier moments of the Clinton era -- Susan McDougal, Webster Hubbell, Johnny Chung, Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers, Marc Rich, Roger Clinton and others. Remember Travelgate, Filegate, Chinagate, Whitewater, the last-minute pardons and so on?

Whether revisiting those issues would be effective for Clinton opponents is an open question. Two-thirds of voters still support Bill Clinton even after those scandals, but they still might not want to relive that sort of drama. Yet in the primaries, at least, many Democrats might rally behind the Clintons, seeing those scandals as ancient history, petty compared to current issues of war and peace or the overhyped product of a salacious media and what Hillary Clinton memorably termed a vast right-wing conspiracy. Bill Clinton, after all, was never so popular among Democrats as when he was fighting impeachment and making his enemies' behavior the issue rather than his own. And the Clintons heading into 2008 have successfully made it seem that discussion of impeachment and the conduct that led to it is somehow out of bounds, even though the former president ultimately admitted giving false testimony under oath and was held in contempt by a federal judge, stripped of his law license by a bar association and forced to pay nearly $1 million in fines and settlements.

As Slate's chief political correspondent, John Dickerson, wrote recently, "a candidate might make a veiled reference to the past drama and hope voters get the hint that it's a time-bomb issue Republicans will certainly exploit in a general election. But this is very risky. Bill Clinton is highly popular, and voters are likely to penalize the candidate who makes them think about all of that past unpleasantness."

Still, someone at some point probably will make them think of that unpleasantness. And just as someone somewhere is preparing for how to do that, someone somewhere in the bowels of the Clinton campaign is probably preparing for how to deal with it when it comes.

-- Peter Baker

By Post Editor  |  October 4, 2007; 10:17 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Morning Cheat Sheet  
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Comments

Bill Clinton wasn't a bad person, but he wassn't a great president. Having Hillary Clinton in the White House would not be a good idea. She isn't a bad person, but she isn't the best candidate. Barack Obama is the best candidate. He appeals to all voters, and has good war and healthcare views. Edwards and Clinton hopefully won't be nominated.

Posted by: doubleblackdiva323 | October 4, 2007 7:54 PM | Report abuse

The nineties are mentioned as a time of peace, seems like there was plenty of action both here in the US and abroad. 1993 World Trade tower attack, US embassies (2) in Africa, US Cole in Yemen, Mogadishu and bombing in Bosnia just to name a few. Guess if you want to call that peace you can........

Posted by: scottmcilwaine | October 4, 2007 7:09 PM | Report abuse

These guys are desperate to find the lead lining in Hillary's clouds so they can turn it into a horse race. They replay a load of stuff that the American people long ago rejected and even some anti Clintonites I know realize in hindsight just how phony most of the charges against him were. He left office with appros around 59% he's now at 66%. It's actually getting very tedious since they are highly paid journalists who are supposed to find new and interesting insights into what happening. I'm a political junkie but it's getting really old hat. Change the record guys, recognize reality, and let's have some serious comment not this nonsensical pap.

Posted by: johnbsmrk | October 4, 2007 6:23 PM | Report abuse

Can the former president maintain his high numbers if he just keeps moping along behind Hilary? He is getting a burst of popular approval but can it be sustained?

Posted by: Big_Blue | October 4, 2007 5:40 PM | Report abuse

When the Republicans impeached Bill Clinton (which is when I stopped being a Republican forever) the American people did NOT want to hear about it THEN.

What most Americans remember about the 1990's "Clinton scandals" is the GOP Congress spending millions and millions and millions and millions of taxpayer dollars on a bunch of baloney.

Oh, and President Clinton bringing us peace and posterity.

I teach at a local college. My 18-22+ year old students remember President Clinton as 11-15+ year old kids. They can't stand Bush for fear of endless war in their future, and they remember Clinton as the coolest dude around. (No doubt they love Obama too, just to make that clear.) (And Ron Paul too, btw.)

I actually think that if the GOP drudges up this stuff, it will make them look both OLD and dumb to the next generation of voters (as well as to those of us who aren't Loyal Bushie Clinton Haters).

Posted by: freespeak | October 4, 2007 5:30 PM | Report abuse

""Up until now, Bill Clinton has been a complete plus among Democratic primary voters for Hillary Clinton. But now with the Norman Hsu money-raising controversy, for the first time there's a real concern in the Clinton camp that this is real baggage from the Clinton White House years." She said the stress within the Clinton team was so pronounced that "there was a shouting match observed among Clinton staffers in public.""

I get it, Peter. You're subtly trying to tell us Andrea Mitchell is a vapid Heather and a GOP shill we should ignore as much as possible. Thanks.

By the way, I understand Hsu's problem, but what exactly did the Clinton campaign do that was controversial? You let Mitchell's remark go without comment. Weird.

Posted by: zukermand | October 4, 2007 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Two Things:

The writer notes "the memory of a seemingly more competent, less ideological leadership contributes to Clinton's strength. "
SEEMINGLY MORE COMPETENT? I don't think Clinton had any Katrina moments, FEMA worked, the government was run primarily as a meritocracy not a kleptocracy and the world respected America.

Secondly, the author tryingly tries again: "Still, someone at some point probably will make them think of that unpleasantness." UNPLEASANTLESS of course is relative, I wonder how many find the private sex life of a president more unpleasant than the public sex antics of Abu Graib, or the turning of America into a torturing Gulag state? Or the no bid contracts? Or the slow economic decline of America? Compared to all these other, shall we say unpleasant moments, the sel-inflicted Clinton mistakes look like quaint personal idiosyncracies.

Posted by: yacau110 | October 4, 2007 12:05 PM | Report abuse

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