As Hillary White House run looms, questions linger about Bill

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Whether Hillary Clinton likes it or not, her husband is one of the big reasons she is the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination if she runs in 2016. 

The charismatic, popular former president has talents as a surrogate and fundraiser that are unprecedented for a would-be presidential spouse. 

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But recent days have also underscored that Bill Clinton can be as much a liability as an asset to his wife.

During a speech last week to the Peterson Foundation Fiscal Summit, the former president flashed some of the irascibility that gave his wife's campaign heartburn during her losing 2008 primary struggle with then-Sen. Barack Obama. 

Pushing back against suggestions from Karl Rove that Hillary might have suffered brain damage in a 2012 fall, Clinton came across as fiercely defensive and a little too hot. He also took a detour into the past, invoking the Whitewater controversy as an example of what he saw as a similar politically-motivated and factually-hollow crusade by conservatives. 

“I’m still waiting for them to admit that there was nothing to Whitewater,” Clinton said. In fact, 15 people were convicted of crimes relating to Whitewater, including close family friends such as Jim and Susan McDougal.

Clinton also bristled when he was pushed on his economic legacy. Once considered his crowning achievement, his record in that area has become more problematic of late, with some on the left arguing that his ardor for deregulation laid the foundation for the financial crisis.  

"He looked at various points to be hesitant, bored, a little petulant," said Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson. "I don't think his presentation was as smooth and engaging as it usually is, which is troublesome.”

In 2008, Bill Clinton lost his temper with reporters on rope lines, made an ill-advised and racially-loaded comparison of Obama with Jesse Jackson, and condemned the media for swallowing what he termed a “fairy tale” about Obama’s foreign policy. 

If Hillary’s presidential ambitions are to be protected, the former president will need to do better this time around. Ensuring that outcome will require careful management from his wife’s aides, though that is something the 42nd president strained against in 2008.

“The question for Hillary 2016 is if they can keep him on the rails, because when he's on track, he's the strongest campaigner in the country,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a political media consultant at Boston University. “At a cerebral level, yes, he understands that restraint is necessary, but I think the protective political, personal instinct jumps in.”

Clinton’s protective impulse risks not only grabbing headlines, but increasing the difficulty for his wife as she looks to reinforce her own bona fides. The former first lady has spent more than a decade crafting her own, discrete identity, but, as with any candidate, she would need to prove her mettle all over again within the pressure cooker of a second national campaign.   

“When you have people attacking your wife, your normal instinct is to come to her defense, but if she's running to become commander in chief of the United States and the leader of the free world, she's got to demonstrate an ability to do that herself,” said Jillson.

Of course, the former president’s personal history is also a concern. The breathless coverage of Monica Lewinsky earlier this month after the former White House intern penned an essay for Vanity Fair underscored the potency of, and appetite for, coverage of the Clintons’ relationships.

Democrats remain confident that the Lewinsky affair has been largely played out.

But the danger of Lewinsky stories, and of President Clinton’s presence in general, could be that they make it harder for his wife to paint a forward-looking vision. 

By 2016, the nation will have had a Democratic president for eight years, and known the Clintons as national political actors for a quarter century. A youthful Republican candidate may be able to adopt the “change” moniker that President Obama used to deadly effect against Hillary in 2008.  

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton exhibits an apparently bottomless appetite to discuss his White House tenure, which ended almost 14 years ago.

“Her challenge and his challenge as a surrogate for him is going to be talk about the future,” said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf. “This can't be a campaign about the past.” 

Still, Democrats and outside observers say that even if there is some risk inherent in Bill Clinton getting involved in a campaign, the reward is more than worth it.

The former president will prove an incredible fundraising draw. His work with the Clinton Foundation has kept him in close contact with many of the wealthy and politically active donors that will be crucial in a post-Citizens United world. 

“He’ll be as good a fundraiser as the candidate, which is uniquely different from most campaigns,” Elmendorf said.

“He’s great at it,” said Princeton University professor Julian Zelizer. “He now has a network that is even bigger because of his post-presidential work. He’s as big a name as you have in the party, and has the kind of popularity and appeal and celebrity status that other Democrats don’t have.”

Clinton is also widely regarded as Democrats’ best surrogate. He famously served to great effect as “explainer-in-chief” for President Obama in 2012.

Ultimately, no matter what the risks, Hillary Clinton is both literally and figuratively wed to Bill.

“If you run away from Bill Clinton you end up losing political strength rather than gaining it,” Zelizer said. “Not only is he an asset, but they don't have that much choice. If they tried to distance her, it’d seem like they’re hiding something.”

The challenge, then, will be calibrating how and when to use the former president and his talents while mitigating the potential risks. 

“Their history is a joint history, and it will be very difficult for Hillary to get away from that, so what you need is a strategic use of the ex-president,” Jillson said. “The day to day campaign should be about Hillary Clinton. The principal surrogate doesn't need to be Bill Clinton every day.”