Hillary Clinton’s campaign tweeted a video on Monday touting her most popular surrogates, a highlight reel featuring Barack and Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren as they excitedly stump for the Democratic nominee. It concludes by asking, “Barack & Michelle & Joe & Bernie & Elizabeth & You?”
“What about Bill?” one is tempted to ask. “Where’s he?”
Last Tuesday, Clinton’s husband was at Montgomery County College in Blue Bell, a town of barely 6,000 people in southeastern Pennsylvania. The former president could barely hide his bemusement that his surrogacy was taking him to remote towns all across America.
“I try to run for her on her behalf when I’ve gone around on my little bus tours in rural Iowa and rural Ohio, and I’m about to do one in western Pennsylvania, I’m about to go to north Florida,” he said in his now-gravelly voice. “I did a couple of stops in New Hampshire yesterday. I just try to tell people why they ought to be for her.”
The wry phrase “my little bus tour” perfectly captures the unexpected modesty of Bill Clinton’s work on the hustings—a striking contrast to the 2012 general election when he was Barack Obama’s most important surrogate, found not in the hinterland but sharing the stage with Bruce Springsteen in a Cleveland suburb. This year, Clinton has had a much more specialized role, aimed at a niche electorate: rural working-class whites who have long been leaving the Democratic Party and are now Donald Trump’s base.
Bill Clinton has a rapport with the white working class, so it makes sense to deploy him to shore up that constituency. But these voters are much less important to Democrats in national elections than they were when he was president in the 1990s, as the party has become much more reliant on people of color, millennials, and suburban professionals. Thus, his visibility in the campaign has diminished.
There are other reasons—good ones—for Bill’s reduced role in the campaign. And he may accept being out of the limelight, for now. But will he be so easily sidelined if, as current polling suggests, Hillary wins the presidency? Will the first gentleman be any less assertive in the White House than his first lady was two decades ago?
Hillary Clinton is in a unique position, not only as the first female major party candidate but also the first spouse of a former president to run for the position. A camera-hogging Bill Clinton would risk overshadowing the Democratic nominee and also give further prominence to the question of his eventual White House duties. Keeping him in the background helps dispel any sexist notion that Hillary’s riding her husband’s coattails.
But there’s a further rationale for Bill’s stealth surrogacy. Donald Trump’s attempts to make a campaign issue of Bill Clinton’s infidelity and alleged sexual misconduct creates an incentive for the Clinton campaign to keep the former president off stage. It’s less that these allegations will gain credence than the fact that they would dominate the news, making it harder for Hillary to get her message out (and perhaps tarnishing her by association).
For all his oratorical gifts, Bill is far from the best person to speak on Hillary’s behalf. He has a habit of waxing nostalgic about his own achievements rather than focusing on the present. He is also prone to gaffes, as when he described Obamacare as “the craziest thing in the world,” and he has gotten defensive when challenged by Black Lives Matter protesters. He is much less disciplined than the other surrogates, even Joe Biden, and much more likely to make news for all the wrong reasons.
Finally, Bill works better as a niche surrogate because his politics are nowhere near as central to the Democratic Party as they were in the 1990s. While Clinton still has decent favorability ratings (49 percent in the most recent Gallup poll, compared to 52 percent for Barack Obama), many of his signature issues—draconian sentencing laws, free trade agreements, and welfare reform—are less popular with the Democratic base than they once were.
The big, unsettled question is whether Bill will remain so discreet if his wife wins. After all, his current status as an under-the-radar surrogate is an artifice of electioneering needs. Once the election is over, will we see a return of the Bill Clinton who has the pride of a peacock and is ever eager to show off?
There’s every reason to think that he will not be a normal first spouse, but will play an outsized role in the White House. After all, he’s been president before, and knows the ropes. He’ll certainly have more experience in the presidency than anyone else who has Hillary’s ear. Even post-presidency, he’s kept in touch with many world leaders through the Clinton Foundation. And he’s certainly not overly modest about his abilities or lacking in ambition.
When Bill Clinton ran in 1992, he said that by voting for him, the American people would get “two for the price of one”—meaning that Hillary would play a substantial policy role in his administration. He tapped her to spearhead his healthcare reform effort. “Hillarycare” (as Republicans labelled it) failed to get off the ground, and she was less publicly involved in policy for the duration of Bill’s presidency. But behind the scenes, she remained her husband’s most trusted advisor, even helping him weather a sex scandal and impeachment.
“Two for the price of one” is not a slogan that either Clinton likes to use anymore. But it’s still the case that Bill and Hillary Clinton are each other’s closest political allies, and she will face the same temptation and risks that he did in 1992. If Hillary needs to send an emissary for a difficult negotiation—with Congress about reforming the Affordable Care Act, say, or a renewed push for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians—who better than her most trusted confidant, a former president with unparalleled experience and who shares her politics? (Then again, enlisting Bill in such crucial situations would invite attacks from the right that she’s not fully in charge of her own presidency.)
We can’t possibly know what Hillary has in store for her husband—if she even knows herself. In a speech in Kentucky in March, she said that Bill would be “in charge of revitalizing the economy, because, you know, he knows how to do it.” After the media (and her critics) ran with the news, her campaign clarified that she was referring specifically to distressed economic areas. The quote was a “Kentucky play,” as NBC News’ Mark Murray put it, rather than a declaration about Bill’s future role.
Hillary, perhaps chastened, has offered nary a hint since then. But whatever she decides, this much is clear: Bill Clinton might be traveling in the hinterland right now, but after November 8 he’ll be closer to the center of power than Barack and Michelle and Joe and Bernie and Elizabeth and you.