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Measuring the Bill Effect

Days before the South Carolina Democratic primary and less than two weeks before the potentially decisive Feb. 5 Super Tuesday contests, former President Bill Clinton and his aggressive, hard-edged advocacy of his wife has emerged as THE issue in the race for his party's presidential nomination.

There was never any doubt that the popular former president would be a central player and strategist in Hillary Rodham Clinton's bid for the presidency, though the party's chattering class has long viewed his role with a mixture of admiration and wariness. But the events of the last few days, in which Bill Clinton has sparred long distance with Sen. Barack Obama , roiled a potent bloc of black voters in South Carolina and snarled at the press corps, have brought his role into much sharper relief.

The former president has taken his role as candidate surrogate to new heights (some critics would say new depths) by raising doubts about Obama's anti-Iraq war credentials and his readiness to assume the duties of president. An irate Obama has struck back, directly accusing Bill Clinton of purposely distorting his record in the Illinois Senate and the U.S. Senate during Monday night's debate and in a number of subsequent public appearances.

Bill Clinton then counterpunched -- no surprise there -- by insisting in vehement terms to a CNN reporter yesterday that he was simply raising facts about Obama's record on the war and blaming the media for turning it into a back-and-forth between the two men.

So, is all of the kerfuffle surrounding Bill Clinton helping or hurting his wife's candidacy? And does the tenor of the primary campaign have the potential to keep Democrats out of the White House in 2008?

In an attempt to answer those two questions, The Fix spent most of the last day chatting with senior party operatives about the former president and studying various polling done on him. Understanding Bill Clinton is a lifelong pursuit -- just ask Politico's John Harris and the Associated Press' Ron Fournier, the two best chroniclers of the man out there. So any discussion of him and his role is sure to be only a chapter in a very long book.

(For more reading to understand what Bill Clinton means to this campaign, make sure to check out the Post's piece penned by Alex MacGillis and Anne Kornblut as well as a story by Harris and Jim VandeHei in Politico.

The first thing that becomes apparent when delving into the "Bill effect" is that he is a beloved figure among the very Democratic primary voters his wife is trying to convince to support her.

A Post poll in late September asked a number of questions about the former president that captures the depth of affection for him.

Asked whether they approved or disapproved of the job Clinton had done as president, 66 percent of the overall sample, including Democrats, Republicans and Independents, said they approved, while just 32 percent disapproved.

While those numbers are impressive, Clinton's numbers among Democrats on that same question were positively stratospheric. Ninety-one percent approved of the job he had done in the White House while just seven percent disapproved.

That trend was apparent in other questions asked in the poll as well. Six in ten voters in the general sample said they would be "comfortable" with the idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House, while 30 percent said they would not be; a whopping eighty-five percent of Democrats said they would be comfortable with the former president back at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue while just nine percent said that prospect made them uncomfortable.

The response to one other question was particularly telling in understanding how Democrats think about Bill Clinton.

The sample was asked: "If Hillary Clinton were elected president, do you think that would represent a resumption of Bill Clinton's presidency, or do you think Hillary Clinton would take the presidency in a different direction from her husband's? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

Overall, 27 percent said it would be a resumption of Bill Clinton's presidency, while 67 percent said the New York senator would take things in a different direction from her husband. Of those who said it would be a resumption, 12 percent thought that would be a good thing while 15 percent thought it would be a bad development. Among the two-thirds who said Hillary Clinton would not simply be a continuation of her husband's two terms, 52 percent thought that taking the country in a different direction would be a good thing while just 15 percent though it would be a bad development.

Pulling out just Democratic responses, just 18 percent said it would be a resumption of the Bill Clinton administration while 77 percent thought Hillary Clinton would take the country in a different direction. Regardless of whether Democrats thought electing Hillary would be the equivalent of a third Clinton term or not, they overwhelmingly thought that either scenario would be good news for the country.

What's clear from this poll -- and many, many other data points just like it -- is that whatever elected officials may think of Bill Clinton, he remains perhaps the single most popular political figure in the Democratic party. Democratic voters like him and remember the eight years he spent in the White House for the relative peace abroad and a prosperous economy at home rather than the series of scandals culminating in the Monica Lewinsky affair.

That depth of good feeling toward Bill Clinton makes him -- in the words of one longtime party strategist -- the "ultimate surrogate." The strategist, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, added that having Bill Clinton on the trail was "like having another candidate out there" due to his ability to draw crowds and TV cameras.

Those cameras, and Bill Clinton's penchant to commit news in front of them, has -- without question -- rubbed many within the party leadership the wrong way. But, in The Fix's conversations with a number of unaligned party strategists, the general consensus was that while Bill Clinton might be breaking a few eggs he was not in danger of fouling the omelet -- so to speak.

"The discussion that is taking place now is tepid compared to the meat grinder the Republican attack machine will put our candidate through in the fall," said Steve Rosenthal, a Democratic consultant and the man who ran America Coming Together during the 2004 election. "Some Democrats might not like the tone of the current debate -- and I'll admit to cringing several times over the last few weeks, but if we're going to win in November our candidate is going to need to prove that he or she can take a licking and keep on ticking."

One Democratic consultant (and yes, most of the people interviewed for this story refused to speak for the record -- a sign of the continued power the Clintons wield in the party) echoed Rosenthal's point: "There is a line the president could cross, but so far he's done her a lot more good than harm." The consultant added that "the doubts [Bill] raised about Obama in New Hampshire were critical to Hillary's win there and he's helping to keep Obama down...Anyone else making those attacks would not have been noticed."

While the majority of folks the Fix interviewed seemed to believe that net effect of Bill Clinton's prominence of late accrued to his wife's benefit, it was not a unanimous position.

One former Clinton official argued that the Bill effect was bad for his wife's prospects, explaining: "It's never good to have the words 'President' and 'attack dog' in the same story, particularly when the target of attack is another Democrat." The source added: "President Clinton serves her campaign best when he reminds Democrats about all the reasons they have to love him. It's a huge mistake to squander that by turning him into just another campaign operative cleverly twisting her opponent's words on cable television."

One potentially compelling argument made by several strategists was that while the high-profile role of Bill Clinton largely accrued to his wife's benefit in a primary race, it could severely complicate her chances should she become the nominee.

The argument goes like this: Bill Clinton is a revered figure among Democratic partisans but is a far more mixed bag when it comes to the independents and moderate voters who will likely be a major target of Hillary Clinton if she becomes the nominee. Once the Pandora's box of Bill is opened (as it clearly has been in this primary) it will be impossible to close come November.

Interestingly, that dynamic could well play out in the primary battle as well. One of the strongest arguments Hillary Clinton's campaign has made is that the former first lady is the most electable of the top tier Democratic candidates -- that she alone has taken on and defeated Republicans in political combat. If concerns about the adverse effect of Bill Clinton's raised profile in the general election somehow begins to bleed into the primary season, it could well influence Democratic voters who want more than anything to win the White House back in 2008.

With all of that said, the Bill effect appears at present to be largely positive for his wife's candidacy. Of course, in politics, things can change in an instant as public opinion is a fickle mistress.

Carter Eskew, the lead strategist for Vice President Al Gore's 2000 presidential bid, smartly cast the Bill effect as an "open question" in the race, adding: "It could help in short term, but leave scars for the general. There's a lot of hope and passion for Obama: if he loses, some of that will be released in anger. But it also depends on how successfully Obama's campaign parries the attacks. So far, not so well."

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 24, 2008; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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