Is Bill Clinton an asset or liability for Hillary 2016?

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There are two ways to process Bill Clinton's impassioned defense of his wife, amidst the recent flap over Karl Rove implying that Hillary Clinton might in some way be brain-impaired after suffering a concussion late last year.

The former president was doing what loyal spouses do: coming to his wife's defense, and in the process, reminding the public of the Clinton Derangement Syndrome that was all too prevalent in 1990s Washington.

Still, he did something that occurred far too often the last time Hillary Clinton sought the presidency: going off-message and causing a headache — in this case, a political one — for his wife.

It wasn't enough for Bill to say that Hillary wasn't faking her head injury; he had to add that it took her six months to fully recover. Thus begging the question of the actual severity of her injury – and giving reporters a new storyline to follow, if they so choose, plus voters a reminder that "forthcoming" is an adjective not normally applied to the former First Couple.

Let's assume the Rove controversy, like many a Washington stink, has an abbreviated shelf life. But it won't be the last time that Bill Clinton chooses to weigh in on wife's behalf. Nor will it be the last time that the former president manages to cause a ripple in the pond.

And that begs the question: Is Bill Clinton a net asset or liability with regard to Hillary Clinton's White House aspirations?

This might sound nonsensical, given Mr. Clinton's ongoing role as the Democrats' biggest and best first-responder. In 2012, it was reviving the Obama reelection effort with a killer framing speech at the party's national convention. In 2014, the 42nd president is the rare big-name Democrat who can venture into his native South and stand up for embattled Democratic incumbents — or, go on the offense in a state like Georgia, where Democrats hope to pick up a Senate seat.

But in 2008, this wasn't the case. Hillary lost in the primaries; Bill lost his temper and his luster after suggesting that Barack Obama wasn't qualified for the Oval Office, that his campaign was a souped-up version of past Jesse Jackson campaigns, and that the Obama narrative was "the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen" – all distractions that took his wife's campaign off-message and into the ditch. Where's the guarantee that Mr. Clinton won't generate similar awkwardness in 2016?

Here are three reasons why Mrs. Clinton needs to reconsider her political relationship with her spouse, should she run in 2016:

  • Experience. One school of thought: Hillary needs Bill to help her navigate the road to the White House. What's overlooked: 2016 would be Hillary Clinton's fourth national campaign (two for her, two for Bill). Mrs. Clinton has crafted strategies; she's hired and fired advisers. She knows what it is to court donors and placate special interests. And she's well versed in how to extricate herself from setbacks and controversies. What is there for Bill to teach Hillary that she already doesn't know?
  • Clinton voters. Another pro-Bill argument: Hillary needs him to rally Blue Dog Democrats. But in a competitive Democratic primary, with most if not all of her rivals running to her left, is that really necessary? One can quibble that Bill Clinton is invaluable in a general election given his ability to appeal to blue-collar Democrats in Ohio and the Upper Midwest. Then again, assuming her 2016 candidacy features a little if not a lot of what worked in the first two Clinton runs — a centrist balancing act offsetting the party's progressive excesses — what can Bill add that Hillary already won't be saying?
  • Her image. To the adage "let Reagan be Reagan," Hillary Clinton's greatest challenge in 2016 may be settling on her true persona. It's not an easy task. She's not a natural charmer, as is her husband. While she'll soon be a grandmother, she doesn't want to appear antiquated. She'll want to appear groundbreaking and forward-looking, not to mention independent from the past two Democratic presidencies. Bill Clinton complicates this — too often dwelling on the greatest hits of the 1990s. In her orbit and by her side during the presidential run, the media will report what if any differences would exist between Clinton presidencies past and present, plus Bill's role in a second Clinton presidency.

Speaking of Clintons, one family member apparently is doing their best to boost the matriarch's fortunes. Chelsea Clinton is now a vice chair of her family's foundation, where presumably she'll make sure the philanthropy stays on the financial straight and narrow, the topic of an unpleasant piece by The New York Times last summer. And, sometime this fall, she'll deliver the Clintons' first grandchild.

As for Bill, he loves the camera — and the camera loves him. At times, too much so, such as the snapshot, taken in March, at a Los Angeles charity with a couple of Moonlite Bunny Ranch hookers (in 2012, it was an impromptu photo at a charity event in a Monte Carlo casino with a couple of porn stars).

Here's a suggestion: If the former president really wants his wife to make history, he should put an end to the A-list socializing and celebrity hobnobbing and instead work harder to realize his foundation's promise to curtail Third World misery. Just as he swore off meat and became a vegan to extend his life expectancy, maybe the former president should consider a media-free diet.

The life he'd save: his wife's presidential prospects.

Whalen, a Hoover Institution research fellow, studies California and national politics.

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