Does Bill Clinton still have his political magic? How much of it can he transfer to his wife? The answers: Yes and not much.
The former president hit the campaign trail last week on behalf of his spouse, the Democratic presidential front-runner. He is the most popular political figure in America and still possesses unrivaled campaign skills. He has learned from his miserable performance eight years ago, when he was a liability for Hillary Clinton as she battled Barack Obama for the nomination.
Still, popularity rarely transfers in American politics. Six decades ago, the mantra was that President Dwight Eisenhower’s jacket didn’t have coattails: Few Republicans benefited from that president’s enormous popularity. That’s probably even more the case with political figures of today.
Bill Clinton probably helps his wife in some marginal ways such as fundraising, and appealing to some voter groups that distrust her. And in the general election he could provide a reminder of what many remember as the golden years of prosperity and peace of the 1990s.
By assailing Hillary Clinton for supposedly enabling her husband’s sexual peccadilloes two decades ago, Donald Trump might gain some ground with his party’s hardcore, Clinton-hating base. But it certainly won’t hurt Bill Clinton; it might even help Hillary with women who resent seeing her blamed for her husband’s infidelities.
In any case, Trump, who puts more stock in polls – or at least those showing him ahead – than George Gallup, would kill for Bill Clinton’s ratings.
The former president is the most resilient politician of this, and probably any, era. He seemed doomed when the sex scandal involving a White House intern erupted during his presidency. Republicans then foolishly tried to remove him from office for lying about sex. That backfired: Bill Clinton led his party to unusual gains in the 1998 midterm elections and left office in 2001 with a 66 percent approval rating.
A few days after he left the White House, it came to light that he had used his final hours as president to pardon Marc Rich, a shady hedge fund manager and fugitive from justice. Bill Clinton became persona non grata, especially with elites; his aspirations to join a few blue-chip corporate boards were thwarted.
It didn’t take long for him to bounce back with corporations and foreign governments, which paid top dollar to hear his insights.
Then in 2008 – rusty after years off the campaign trail – he seemed to implode, frustrated by Obama, a political novice who was getting the better of his wife. Bill Clinton had a bitter feud with Sen. Edward Kennedy, who was about to endorse Obama. In a private conversation, the former president complained that he didn’t understand how the Democratic Party could nominate someone who a few years earlier would have been sent out to get coffee. Such sentiments alienated prominent black leaders, some of whom warned of a permanent rift with the former president.
That April, an unwise columnist – me – wrote a piece headlined: “Bill Clinton May Be Biggest Loser of Campaign.”
Fat chance. By 2012, he again was the most popular American politician. He gave the most compelling speech at the Democratic convention that year, making the case for Obama’s economic performance that the president himself had been unable to make. The weekend before the election, at a big rally in Northern Virginia, Clinton demonstrated again the skills that make him the dominant politician of the day, deriding Mitt Romney and extolling Obama – who was beside him – with sharp humor and rousing rhetoric.
He can’t win the Democratic nomination for Hillary; that’s her job. But it’s easy to imagine the anticipation as the former president approaches the podium at the Philadelphia convention, where Democrats will be nominating a Clinton for the third time. In the general election, Republicans will attack him at their own peril.
Al Hunt is a columnist for Bloomberg View.