Being made a candidate of the past

Hillary Clinton was once well on her way to sewing up the Democratic presidential nomination, but she may have blown her chances by allowing her husband, former President Bill Clinton, to slink back into the picture more prominently. Rather than properly understanding that the best positioning for her candidacy is the symbolic and forward-looking notion of electing the first woman president, Clinton has lurched toward a nostalgia message that looks backward to her husband’s performance instead of ahead to the future that she can shape in her own image.

I can imagine that there is a huge war inside the Clinton camp about this blunder. Here’s how it probably developed. Hillary’s numbers went a little wobbly. The Clinton strategists commissioned research. Some focus-group participants and poll respondents expressed admiration for the perceived economic and policy successes of the Bill Clinton administration.

To exploit sentiments about “the good ol’ days” when Bill ruled the roost, Hillary Clinton insiders who were closest to the former president decided to drag Bill back into a more visible role in the campaign. He’s the relief pitcher coming in to make the save for his wife in the ninth inning. I would imagine that most of Bill’s mostly male pals now advising Hillary think this is great stuff. Yet I’d bet that some female Hillary loyalists know the boys-club strategy is wrongheaded.

There’s no doubt that many Americans admire Bill Clinton’s accomplishments. In June 2006, the Gallup Organization asked for a retrospective view of various presidencies, including Bill’s. Clinton performed well in the nationwide survey. Six in 10 Americans  (61 percent) say they now approve of how Bill Clinton handled the presidency. That’s 6 percentage points better than the 55 percent average approval rating Gallup recorded for Clinton while he was actually in office.

Among Democrats — and this is probably what is most influencing Hillary — Bill now gets an 80 percent job approval rating for his administration. That’s not Ronald Reagan territory — the Gipper gets a 97 percent retrospective rating from Republicans — yet Clinton’s numbers are stout. However, the fact that even one in five Democrats doesn’t approve of Bill’s performance in the Oval Office should have constituted a warning to the Democrats wanting to look back instead of pointing to the future.

But Bill Clinton’s legacy is not what is central to this election. Americans are trying to plot a future course that gets the nation moving again, in a new direction. The central premise underlying this bipartisan sentiment is that politicians, both Republicans and Democrats in the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, have let us down. People want change. They want fresh, new leadership. The answer to that marketplace demand is not a recycled old politician, even a popular one.

The recent surges in the polls by Barack Obama, Mike Huckabee and even Ron Paul signal that many late-deciding, floating voters are opting for change. Given the chance to vote either for Oprah’s candidate or Bill Clinton’s candidate is a no-brainer for these Americans. They want change and Bill Clinton doesn’t represent change. He’s just a better-than-average version of the status quo. And that won’t do.

In February of this year, Gallup asked a nationwide sample of Democrats whether Bill Clinton should or should not fill various roles in his wife’s administration. Only 47 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners said that “he should serve in an official government position as a policy adviser to Hillary.” By comparison, 73 percent thought “he should serve as White House host, helping plan social events and dinners.”

If Bill is going to help Hillary, he needs to get his apron on and look like a new-age husband of the future. The “good ol’ boy” adviser thing is so 1992.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.