The Bill Factor
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
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