What's Next for the Other Clinton?

Washington Matters

What's Next for the Other Clinton?

One thing we have learned over the past two decades is never, ever count out a Clinton. So whether Hillary Clinton ends up on the ticket or not, don't be surprised if former President Bill Clinton ends up using the coming campaign to try to undo some of the remarkable damage he did to his image as the elder statesman of the Democratic Party. And especially don't be surprised if he succeeds.

When Hillary Clinton began her run, she supposedly had a lock on the nomination -- and one of the chief reasons was her husband, his reputation in the party and his acknowledged mastery of the science of political campaigns. The concern was whether he would overshadow his wife at a time she needed to prove her own bona fides.

No such luck. Rather than looking too good or too compelling, Clinton kept reminding people of how exhausted most of us were when his term ended, tired of the careful parsing of the truth, the never ending political positioning  and the occasional lapse into churlishness and pettiness. And somehow the man who was once known affectionately as the first black president because of the bond he forged with the African-American community managed to alienate many black voters. As New Yorker writer Hendrik Hertzberg put it, the president who saw his popularity soar as the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment proceedings against him dragged on, managed as a surrogate for his wife to do "far more damage to his reputation than his adulteries ever did."

No one knows for sure why Clinton let himself go off the rails so often, but it's hard to dismiss the notion that he was close to desperate about preserving his legacy while trying to help his wife build one of her own. Having seen how that worked out, Clinton may very well try a different approach. And besides, Clinton knows Americans can have very short memories in political campaigns.

Here's some things to watch for:

  • Bank on Clinton to try to make a fresh start with a barn-burner of a speech at the convention. He'll get a prime-time spot ... and Clinton will respond with a rousing and earnest appeal for party and national unity. Not to mention a rather sharp review of how different the country looks now versus the shape it was in when left office office eight years ago.
  • Clinton did eventually settle down, mostly, and stayed out of Hillary's way by campaigning for her in the backwaters of key states, where he helped rally poorer white voters. Obama is in dire need of those voters and Clinton might be able to help deliver them.
  • The former president tried to do the same thing in small black communities to prevent a landslide loss in North Carolina, to no avail. He might have far more success beating the drum for Obama in similar fashion in that state and several other typically Republican Southern states that could be in play this fall. That could go a long way toward healing some hurt feelings, too.
  • Clinton was the first Democrat elected to two terms since Roosevelt by helping the party cast off its liberal label and taking divisive issues such as guns and capital punishment off the table. Obama is taking a similar tack and Clinton could help shore up that "purple state" approach by hitting swing districts in key states.
  • Clinton may be able to get older voters out to vote and in the Democratic column. One reason Obama won was by bringing out millions of new voters, many of them very young. Clinton could help make sure that Obama doesn't lose these older voters that have long been a key part of the Democratic base -- the sort who were so alienated and angered by his impeachment. 

But all that assumes that Clinton can remain disciplined, clearly not his long suit, and stick to whatever game plan the Democrats draw up. Given the volatile and loose-lipped ex-president's track record, Obama will need reassurance that Clinton can be trusted not to stray very far from message and strategy. You can be sure that this will be part of the discussion when Obama and Hillary Clinton sit down to talk within the next several days.