Electing Hillary: toughest political challenge of Bill Clinton's life?

Bill Clinton is the master at political speech. But campaigning for a loved one can be harder than advocating for oneself, and the party has changed.

Neal Menschel
Former President Bill Clinton, addressing the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday, July 26, 2016, told the crowd that his wife was 'the best darn change-maker I've ever met in my entire life.'

Bill Clinton – a.k.a. the Big Dog – was in the house Tuesday night, and the former president did not disappoint.

He was charming and steely-eyed, and owned the arena as he told his wife’s story in personal terms, from their courtship through to her time as secretary of State. As Hillary Clinton’s husband for the past 40 years, the popular ex-president was her ultimate character witness, portraying her as hard-working, persistent, and caring.  

She is "the best darn change-maker I've ever met in my entire life,” he said.

On Day Two of the Democratic National Convention, Mrs. Clinton made history by becoming the first woman nominee of a major-party for president of the United States. Mr. Clinton’s task may have seemed deceptively simple: to add new dimensions to his wife’s public image – elements of her life story that older voters may have forgotten and younger voters never knew as he walked through her early advocacy for children, her policy work as first lady, and her diplomatic ventures in the State Department.

Mr. Clinton is a master political operator, even Republicans agree. But helping to elect Hillary president of the United States may prove to be the toughest challenge of his life.

Eight years ago, when Mrs. Clinton ran for the Democratic nomination against Mr. Obama, Mr. Clinton stumbled at times and hurt her cause. He made comments that some interpreted as racially charged – such as when he compared Obama’s 2008 victory in the South Carolina primary to that of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson in 1988. The suggestion seemed to be that Obama won South Carolina only because he’s black. 

This time around, Mr. Clinton has played a more low-key role in his wife’s campaign, appearing at smaller events and fundraisers, and weighing in privately with advice. (He was reportedly a big backer of Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia for running mate.)

Yet Clinton has still at times thrown the campaign off-message. In April, while defending his wife’s presidential bid, he sparred with Black Lives Matter protesters. In June, he lashed out at pro-Bernie Sanders hecklers, saying they’d be “toast” by Election Day.

Admirers of the former president cut him some slack, arguing that it can be harder to defend a loved one than oneself. 

“Bill Clinton is the smartest, most articulate guy I’ve ever seen,” says Don Fowler, chairman of the Democratic National Committee during Clinton’s presidency. “But like a lot of people, when someone attacks the dearest thing he knows, he loses a little precision.”

Late last month, Clinton raised eyebrows again when he met privately with Attorney General Loretta Lynch on the tarmac at Phoenix airport, right as the investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State was coming to a head. Mr. Clinton says the two discussed grandchildren and golf.

The bigger challenge for Mr. Clinton may in fact be his record as president – a record that Mrs. Clinton also owns to some degree, for better or worse. The Democratic Party no longer has the centrist cast that Mr. Clinton helped to shape in the 1980s and ‘90s, when balancing the budget and moving people off welfare were the name of the game. The party is no longer even Mr. Obama’s, in its new leftward tilt.

On issue after issue, Mr. Clinton has become “explainer in chief” for his own record. The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which Clinton implemented, is now under pressure from both Sanders and Donald Trump supporters.

Clinton has expressed regret for signing the 1994 crime bill, which led to mass incarcerations, particularly of minorities. He has also disavowed the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise that kept gays in the military closeted.

The mere fact that the Clintons have to explain or refute old policies points to a deeper problem: that the Clintons are figures of the past in an election where voters are demanding change. Though Mr. Trump, the Republican nominee, is of the same vintage as the Clintons, he’s an outsider. The Clintons are the ultimate political insiders.

And they form the nucleus of a potential political dynasty. Daughter Chelsea, who will introduce her mother on Thursday before her big acceptance speech, says she too may run for office someday. The failure of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the Republican primaries signaled, in part, a rejection of dynastic politics in America.

Here in Philadelphia, alive with politically engaged voters on both sides of the Democratic divide, the idea of politics as a family business gets mixed reactions.

“I didn’t want it with the Bushes,” says Sabrina Fedrigo, a Sanders delegate from Pennsylvania in her mid-20s. “I don't want it with the Clintons. I don't want it with any family – we are not a monarchy.”

Ms. Fedrigo agrees that people get excited seeing an ex-president out campaigning. But Mr. Clinton’s record is problematic to her.

“He was impeached – and that’s a big deal,” she says. “And for me, personally, it pushes me away from Hillary. I don’t want to see him make any big decisions in office. He had his time, and he messed it up.”

Mrs. Clinton has ruled out a cabinet position for her husband, but she has signaled a role for him focused on economic growth and job creation.

Bill Clinton’s presidency was a time of relative peace and prosperity, including a balanced budget – a record that could redound to Mrs. Clinton’s benefit in November, particularly with more moderate voters.

To some supporters, the Clintons are a two-fer, in a positive way.

“Does she need Bill? No. She can do it on her own,” says Jordan Krsnak, a Clinton supporter from California and part of the “Hollywood for Hillary” team. “But they're a great team. She helped him while he was in the White House. And will he be an asset to her while she's in the White House? Absolutely.”

Other Clinton voters made clear that they were supporting her solely on her merits, not her husband’s.

Bill Clinton was a “total non-factor” in one delegate’s decision to support Mrs. Clinton.

“I'm a hardcore Democratic Party person since 1970,” said Paul Berry of Washington state. “So it really does not matter to me what Bill Clinton did – or didn't – do at any time.”

Staff writer Story Hinckley contributed to this report from Philadelphia.

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