Bill Clinton still casts a long shadow
He provides advice and a blueprint for Democratic candidates to follow, but he could upstage them, too.
WASHINGTON — He may not be able to seek another presidential term himself. But increasingly, it seems, Bill Clinton is becoming a force in the 2004 campaign.
After being sidelined in 2000 by a vice president wanting to distance himself from his mentor's moral failings, Mr. Clinton is taking an increasingly active role in the current presidential race. He's strategizing with party leaders at closed-door meetings, and offering advice - both public and private - to candidates.
Meanwhile, Democratic hopefuls are invoking his name on the stump with growing frequency, as they contrast the lost jobs and slow economic growth under President Bush with the boom years of the 1990s.
Many campaigns freely admit to seeking out Clinton's political counsel, calling him an invaluable resource. "If Yoda's in the neighborhood, you might as well give him a call," says David Axelrod, an adviser to Sen. John Edwards.
Other analysts say he's most useful as a role model: "Every one of these campaigns sits down at a certain point and says, 'How would Clinton have handled this?'" says another Democratic campaign strategist.
In some ways, it's not surprising that the former president's star is shining brighter these days. The scandals that dogged his tenure are fading with time - Monica Lewinsky recently hosted a reality show on FOX. And Clinton stands as an inspiration to his party, with his defeat of George Bush Sr. a touchstone, as well as a kind of playbook, for current campaigns.
Yet his ongoing presence could prove as much of a burden as a boon for Democrats, particularly if he winds up overshadowing the current field of presidential contenders. Lately, he's captured the media spotlight with remarks criticizing the Bush tax cut, and suggesting that the 22nd amendment (which limits US presidents to two terms) should be overturned. Several new books are coming out reexamining his tenure, including, next week, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's memoirs. Next year, Clinton will release his own book, just in time for the election.
Strategists acknowledge that it's rare for an ex-president to maintain such a prominent public and political profile, but add that, regardless of Clinton's actions, he would probably be a factor in the race.
"Even if he committed himself to a cave somewhere for the next year and said nothing, he would still cast a great shadow over the process, because he's a standard by which other candidates will be measured," says Mr. Axelrod.
Democrats have not had such a young and politically active ex-president in over a century. Historically, there are a handful of examples - the best perhaps being John Quincy Adams, who, after leaving the White House, went on to have a long and distinguished career in Congress. But throughout the 20th century, most Democratic presidents either died in office or quietly retired to the golf course. (Jimmy Carter has maintained a public - though not particularly partisan - persona, focus ing on humanitarian efforts, although he has recently made critical remarks about the Bush administration's foreign policy.)
Clinton associates say he's mindful of the need to keep distance from the current campaign, and let the process take its course. He has not endorsed a candidate in the Democratic primary, for example, and has been careful not to publically favor a particular campaign. Still, they add, his love of politics makes it almost impossible for him to maintain complete detachment. "He's someone who never stops eating, breathing, and thinking politics," says Leon Panetta, Clinton's former chief of staff.
Most current Democratic campaigns are clearly listening to Clinton's advice. After the contentious presidential debate in South Carolina, Clinton publicly urged his party to put aside its own squabbles and focus on Bush - which the candidates did at the very next forum in Iowa.
Earlier this year, after the party's disappointing midterm election performance, Clinton pointed the campaigns toward a tougher stand on national security, saying voters prefer candidates who are "strong and wrong" over weak and right.
But while Clinton's political acumen is undisputed within the Democratic Party, some strategists are questioning his role as a party leader. They suggest the Democrats' current divisions and lack of a coherent identity can be blamed in large part on Clinton. His repudiation of certain long-held Democratic positions on issues such as welfare reform may have been politically smart, they say, but it also left Democrats without a sense of distinctiveness.
Although Clinton won two terms in the White House, the Democratic Party been far less successful in the past decade. "Democrats lost more ground during the Clinton years than during any period since the early 1920s," says Allan Lichtman, a presidential scholar at American University. When Clinton came into office, Democrats controlled the presidency, the House, the Senate, and most governorships, he notes. "Look where they stand now."
Supporters insist Clinton did have a coherent vision, and that by moving the party to the center, he saved it from extinction. Democrats had lost five of six presidential elections before he came along, they note - and the party should heed the lessons of Clinton's victories if they don't want to lose the next one as well.
"Unless the Democratic candidate appeals to the broad center of this country and to the average American, there's no way he's going to win," says Mr. Panetta. "That is the ultimate Clinton lesson."
In the end, most Democrats agree, party identity is often tied up in personality, and Democrats are likely to solidify their message once they rally around a nominee. At that point, Clinton's influence in the campaign may begin to wane somewhat. Once a candidate is nominated, "that person will be the voice and face in control of the Democratic Party," says one strategist. "And if that person wins and becomes president, they will continue in that role."
But if the Democratic nominee loses the election? "Clinton will still be there," he says.