Senate Democrats to plot strategy ... with Bill Clinton?

Senate Democrats gather Wednesday for a private policy retreat. Obama will be there, of course, but so will former President Bill Clinton. Is Clinton 'message-crafter in chief,' or peacemaker, or something else?

Frank Franklin II/AP/File
Former President Bill Clinton speaks on the steps of City Hall in New York, Jan. 1, 2014. In Washington, Senate Democrats will hear from the popular former president at their private policy retreat Wednesday.

When in trouble, call Bill Clinton. Senate Democrats, who are at risk of losing control of the Senate in November elections, will hear from the popular former president at their private policy retreat Wednesday.

They’ll also hear from President Obama. He’s not so popular – in some states, he's radioactive. Mr. Obama’s health-care reform law has dragged down his approval rating to the point that Republicans believe they might be able to pick up the six seats they need, net, to win a Senate majority.

How might the man whom Obama dubbed “my secretary of explaining stuff” be able to help? He certainly boosted the Democrats with his optimism and plain speaking at the Democratic National Convention in 2012, in a speech that Americans rated almost twice as highly as Obama’s.

First, he might do well by giving a word or two about messaging on the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as "Obamacare." The GOP has the upper hand here, relentlessly pointing out the law’s shortcomings. Mr. Clinton has been there, done that on health care – he suffered a spectacular policy defeat on that issue during his presidency that helped the Republicans clean up in the midterm elections of 1994.

Next, he might try helping to smooth divisions between some Senate Democrats and Obama – without getting personal about it, of course.

One divide opened up publicly last week. In his State of the Union address Jan. 28, Obama asked for Congress's help in concluding free-trade deals with Europe and Asia-Pacific nations. Senate majority leader Harry Reid promptly shot that down. Free trade is a tricky issue for Democrats, viewed as a job killer by many. Clinton – who as president pushed through NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) – is all too familiar with the pitfalls.

Disagreements between Senate Democrats and Obama have surfaced in other areas. Democrats from energy states want him to approve the Keystone XL pipeline and object to what they see as his anti-coal policies. Some want him to do more to restrict the National Security Agency’s surveillance of Americans’ phone records. Still, the Democrats aren’t nearly as divided as are the Republicans, who have the tea party to contend with.

“Compared to the Republicans, the president and the congressional Democrats are Damon and Pythias; the Republicans are Cain and Abel,” says Ross Baker, a congressional expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. (One-second lesson on a legend of ancient Greece: Damon and Pythias sacrificed for each other, proving a lasting friendship.)

After Wednesday's retreat, vulnerable Democratic incumbents – and fresh faces hoping to fill seats of retiring senators – would also probably appreciate Clinton’s rainmaker abilities in states where Obama is unpopular. In West Virginia, Montana, South Dakota, Arkansas, and Alaska, Obama’s disapproval rating is higher than 55 percent, according to Gallup’s latest state-by-state poll.

In some cases, better to go with the president people still like than the one they’re not so keen on.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.