Hillary Clinton on Sunday told a campaign rally in Kentucky that, if elected, she’s going to put husband Bill Clinton “in charge of revitalizing the economy."
She didn’t give more details than that, but the crowd liked it: They cheered. Has the former secretary of State finally figured out the best way to handle the prospect of a former president serving as First Spouse – an unelected post with no Constitutional duties?
Well, that’s debatable. Without specific details attached it’s hard to judge the policy implications of this proposal. Does she want Bill to head a broad effort with a possible policy outcome at the end, as she did with health care during his presidency? (That did not turn out so well, remember.) Will she appoint him to the cabinet, as secretary of Labor perhaps, with a section of the government to run?
After all, a president’s ability to influence the economy is more limited than you might think. A presidential spouse’s ability to juice up the job market may be even more limited.
But in political terms, the prospect of Bill Clinton as some sort of economic czar might be a boost to Hillary Clinton’s near-term prospects. His two terms in office in retrospect appear to be good times. Economic growth averaged 4 percent a year. Median family income rose. The federal budget deficit turned into a surplus.
And Bill was popular in Kentucky in particular. He won the state in 1992 and 1996, though in the latter year he was helped by third-party candidate Ross Perot siphoning off about 9 percent of the Kentucky vote. His Arkansas roots and centrist image made him more popular in Appalachia and among white voters than his wife is today. In that sense, trying to harness his appeal is an obvious move in a state where Hillary Clinton thinks she has a chance for a strong showing in Tuesday’s primary.
In the longer term, Bill Clinton is almost certain to become a divisive issue in the general election. In that context, his wife needs to frame him in the best possible light.
His proposed new role could serve to remind voters of the former president’s association with better economic times in the 1990s. But the move also risks reinforcing a liability of the current candidate Clinton: She's viewed by many as a candidate "of the past," and now she’s throwing a prime policy portfolio to her president-from-the-past husband.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump says he will raise the issue of Bill Clinton’s infidelities directly in presidential debates. Hillary Clinton enabled them and tried to discredit some of the women involved, Republican candidate Trump told The New York Times on Monday. That makes the subject fair game in his view.
In 1998, Clinton’s job approval ratings rose after impeachment, and US voters generally made it clear that a strong economy trumped infidelity when it came to their opinion of the commander-in-chief. Will the result be different in 2016? That’s something we’re likely to discover by November.