Hillary’s finally in for the 2016 election, but what role for Bill?
Hillary Clinton has put an end to speculation about one question: Yes, she’s running for president. But that leaves another: What role has she in mind for her husband Bill?
The former president is seen as a formidable campaigner and a potential asset to his wife’s operation. But would he outshine her? And might his own baggage prove too much to carry?
And, while many voters retain fond memories of Bill’s 1990s terms as an era of U.S. economic strength and international prestige, the 2016 election will turn on visions of the future.
Hillary’s Republican opponents, in particular the youthful 43-yearold Sen. Marco Rubio, are striving to portray her politics as a tired throwback to the Baby Boomer generation.
If Clinton wins she will be 69 when she takes office, the same age as Ronald Reagan and more than two decades older than Bill or Barack Obama were at their inaugurations.
Having a beaming Bill standing beside her can only remind voters that Hillary has been a fixture of U.S. public life for 35 years, a respected figure but not a blast of fresh air.
Obama beat Hillary in the 2008 Democratic primary running as a fresh-faced candidate for hope and change — and Bill’s maladroit interventions scarcely helped his wife.
Conflict of Interest
Many of the black voters who flocked to Obama’s standard were offended by Bill’s dismissal of the challenger’s success in South Caro- lina, with its large African-American electorate.
Out of office, the Clinton family foundation is an asset. The multimillion dollar charity gives Bill, Hillary and daughter Chelsea a statesman’s visibility on the global circuit.
But Hillary stood down from the board on Sunday after she launched her run: the grants the fund received from foreign governments carry the whiff of a conflict of interest.
Both Clintons are well-used to probing, even harsh, press coverage, but the nature of the upcoming Democratic primary race threatens them with a new level of scrutiny.
In the absence of a credible challenger from within her own party, reporters covering her race will have one eye on Bill and another on a barrage of attacks from the Republican camp.
Hillary is no longer defined as a former first lady. Since the couple left the White House at the end of Bill’s second term she has become a leading senator and diplomat in her own right.
And she has bristled when Bill’s sometimes clumsy interventions have overshadowed her own efforts, or cast her as in need of protection.
Last year, when Bill came to her defense over some ill-judged remarks about her finances, Hillary declared: “My husband was very sweet today, but I don’t need anybody to defend my record. I think my record speaks for itself.”
Bill, while clearly keen to play a role, is aware of the unique threats he poses to his wife’s effort.
When asked what position he saw for himself in the campaign, he laughed and affected modesty: “I’m a foot soldier in an army. I will do what I am instructed to do.”
No-one in Washington really believes that, though. Bill is a political animal and will find it hard to stand by as his wife goes it alone against their shared opponents.
According to a recent poll by NBC news and the Wall Street Journal, 56 percent of U.S. voters have a positive opinion of the president who was once impeached for lying about an affair.
This compares to only 44 percent for his wronged wife, despite her Democratic frontrunner status. 36 percent of voters have a negative opinion of her, only 26 of him.
Bill’s approval ratings also outstrip Obama’s, and by endorsing his wife’s former opponent, boosted Obama’s 2012 reelection drive and helped mend fences with black voters.
His rapturously received speech at Obama’s nomination convention earned Bill the thanks of the White House and the tongue-in-cheek title of “secretary for explaining stuff.”
But could Bill also be his wife’s savior if her campaign runs into trouble? Brendan Nyhan, professor of political science at Dartmouth College, thinks not.
“Bill Clinton is obviously a very gifted politician but he campaigned for plenty of candidates who could not survive when conditions were unfavorable and he could not save Hillary in 2008,” he notes.
In the 600 days remaining before America goes to the polls on November 8, 2016, Bill can play to his strengths as a party fund-raiser and back room adviser with a sharp political mind.
But it will be for Hillary to find her own magic on the stump.