By Bob Cusack - 05/27/14 06:00 AM EDT
Republican praise of the Clinton era over the last several years could reverberate in the 2016 presidential race, giving the Democratic front-runner a core talking point.
One of Hillary Clinton's biggest challenges in her likely White House bid is convincing voters that she could make Washington work. Critics have long called Clinton a polarizing figure, citing her effort to revamp the nation's healthcare system in the 1990s and more recently, her congressional testimony on the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate, last year said if Clinton had become president in 2009, “we’d have fixed this fiscal mess by now.” The Budget Committee chairman was drawing a comparison between Clinton and President Obama, who has struggled to strike deals with Republicans.
Should she become commander in chief, Clinton would not lead the nation exactly how her husband did. But she would likely adopt a similar leadership style, and Bill Clinton would be right at her side.
On many occasions, Republicans have touted Bill Clinton's administration as a way to bash Obama. They maintain the 42nd president negotiated in good faith, and Obama doesn't.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) said in 2012 that Bill Clinton was a better president than Obama “because he understands that in governing, you do have to sit down and work out your differences.” He added that Bill Clinton was pragmatic and makes even some Republicans want to get bumper stickers that say, “I miss Bill.”
Bill Clinton had many clashes with the GOP, most notably during the government shutdowns of the mid-1990s and when the Republican-led House impeached him amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But they did pass landmark legislation together, including welfare reform and the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.
In a speech late last month, Bill Clinton defended his economic policies during his two terms in office, mentioning the revamp of welfare and an earned-income tax credit he signed into law.
“You know the rest. It worked out pretty well,” he said.
In March, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) delivered a speech on the House floor that highlighted Clinton’s achievements and bashed the record of former President George W. Bush: “[Bill Clinton] signed what amounted to the biggest capital gains tax cut in American history. He reduced entitlement spending by reforming the open-ended welfare system. He produced four years of budget surpluses, and the economy blossomed. George W. Bush pursued the opposite policies with the opposite results.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he had a lot of disagreements with Bill Clinton, but “at key moments, he was willing to cross party lines.” The minority leader, who has lambasted Obama on his dealings with Republicans, added that “there is ample evidence that divided government is the best time to do really difficult things.”
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) last year lauded Bill Clinton’s leadership in 1993, “when he convinced 47 percent of Senate Democrats and 40 percent of House Democrats to defy organized labor and support the North American Free Trade Agreement.”
Other Republicans have extolled Bill Clinton for working with them in the 1990s on a range of issues.
Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who is chairman of the CivicForumPAC, said these GOP remarks will echo in 2016.
“If Hillary Clinton does indeed run in 2016, one of the most powerful weapons she will have in her campaign arsenal is ‘Republicans, in their own words.’ It’s a treasure trove of sound-bites and footage that could leave Republicans kicking themselves when it is all said and done.”
With Obama's approval ratings mired in the 40s, Clinton will have to put some distance between her and the president.
One way is for her to vow to work more effectively with lawmakers. Republicans and a surprising number of Democrats on Capitol Hill have criticized the Obama White House's communication with Congress.
O’Connell said, “Need to distance yourself from the albatross known as Obama? Roll the tape. Want to tout your bipartisan credentials to woo independents? Roll the tape. Have to show that you’re a pragmatic problem solver? Roll the tape.”
Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at American University, said, “I think the [GOP] comments can only help her. Although remarks like that may be damning in a primary, she’s likely not going to be facing any high-level competitors.”
Peter Ubertaccio, the chairman of the political science department at Stonehill College, said, “Those comments may help her in the general election.” But he suggested they would have a limited impact, noting that Republicans “impeached her husband.”
— Vivian Hughbanks and Athena Cao contributed.