Like a terrible werewolf moon, Bill Clinton is shining again in his full brilliance. A new wave of commentary, from The New Yorker to Newsweek to The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times, has concluded that Bill’s role in his wife’s presidential campaign has mainly damaged both Hillary and his own legacy. Bill clumsily played the race card, they say. Bill doesn’t understand new media. Bill is embittered and angry.
But maybe it didn’t have to be
this way. Maybe Bill’s role could have been entirely different. What if
Hillary had placed Bill front and center in her campaign? What if the
Early in the campaign, Hillary’s strategists had good reason to keep Bill away from center stage. With her clunky speaking style, Hillary suffered in direct comparison to her spouse’s political magic--something made clear after the two spoke in succession at Coretta Scott King’s February 2006 funeral. Hillary seemed a rusty Honda Accord to Bill’s Maserati convertible.
So, yes, it was essential that Hillary
to establish her individual identity, find her own voice, demonstrate to
That needn’t have lasted indefinitely, but it did. Whether because Hillary was determined to prove herself, or because a co-presidency seemed too complicated to market, Bill was designated a second banana. And he has remained that way, in a subordinate role that seems strangely removed from the heart of Hillary’s machine. Yes, Hillary references “my husband’s administration,” but she spends far more time dwelling on her own, less impressive personal narrative. Her campaign literature, advertisements, and stump speeches rarely dwell on Bill’s accomplishments. The two rarely campaign together: His campaign visits tend to be in remote areas that don’t make the cut for Hillary’s itinerary. With his self-deprecating jokes about being “first lady,” and doing whatever Hillary asks him to do, Bill tends to play the role of a humble, dutiful spouse who is simply along for a somewhat wacky ride.
But this approach has clearly
failed. It has left the
The approach was strained from
the outset. Bill Clinton is no ordinary spouse. It’s absurd to reinvent him as anything
close to Laura Bush. So perhaps Hillary’s campaign should have openly assured that
Bill would have a key decision-making role in the Oval Office. He could have
joined Hillary regularly for joint campaign events--possibly even for town
halls where both
Think of the potential benefits.
First, this approach would have rendered moot the long and often damaging--think
Second, treating Bill more as a
co-candidate would have better exploited his (now squandered) stature among
Democrats. By relegating him to the role of humble spouse, Hillary’s team diminished
his global statesman status. Instead of letting him blab to junior MSNBC
producers on the rope line in
The next point is paradoxical: Had Bill spent more time at the center of the campaign, he might have said fewer stupid things. He has seemed to lash out in part because people don’t take him seriously enough. We constantly find Bill berating reporters for ignoring the substantive issues he spends all day talking about but which never get covered. In other words: By granting Bill the spotlight, he might feel less compelled to steal it.
Then there’s the likability
question. Hillary may be wonderful in person, but many voters seem to find her
grating. Bill survived the ’90s in part thanks to an ability to talk his way
Finally, as a co-candidate. Bill
might have been covered very differently. One subtext of Bill’s snarky coverage
is a crude amusement with the
This would have been a risky strategy to be sure, and without the benefit of hindsight few people might have recommended it. There’s no telling whether it would have worked. But one thing is certain: The strategy Hillary chose has led her to the brink of defeat--and badly sullied Bill’s reputation along the way. It’s hard to imagine this alternative turning out much worse.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The