Monday, January 28, 2008

The Other Clinton

Days Until Bush Leaves Office = 357

When he came into office 15 years ago, Bill Clinton was on a mission to make his mark in history by reforming American government and reinvigorating a languishing economy. But notable missteps on health care and gays in the military contributed to a repudiation at the polls in the 1994 congressional mid-terms, which seemed to refocus Clinton's remarkable political skills. Bill Clinton presided over the longest peacetime economic expansion in our nation's history, turned record budget deficits into record surpluses, lifted millions of families out of poverty, and stepped in to prevent genocide in the heart of Europe.

And then the mischief set in. Somewhere along the line, being a successful president wasn't enough to hold Bill Clinton's attention, and he dallied his way into impeachment over a liaison with White House intern Monica Lewinsky; in so doing, President Clinton effectively sacrificed the last half of his second term, and the many things he might have achieved in that time, to the full-time pursuit of his own survival in office. Arguably, Bill Clinton didn't have a lot of choice in the circumstances. But the circumstances were largely of his own making, and he bears responsibility for those years of missed opportunity.

As a result, when he left office 7 years ago, Bill Clinton was on a mission to redeem his place in history by becoming a global elder statesman (if that term was to be applied to someone of Clinton's age at the time) in the Jimmy Carter mold. After his relief work following the Asian tsunami, he seemed poised to succeed, and his place in the public mind, if not quite yet in history, was looking more solid than at any time in his political career. When Hillary Clinton won election to the Senate, and then declared her candidacy for president, at least part of the excitement many felt about her was that she would bring Bill Clinton along as part of the package. And in the early going, during last spring and summer, Bill Clinton seemed to justify that esteem, making elevated speeches in support of Hillary which included the disclaimer, "I'm not here to say anything bad about anybody." People didn't just buy that, they loved it, and Bill Clinton's post-presidential stock took another jump upwards.

And then the mischief set in. Somewhere along the line, the prospect of becoming a globally beloved elder statesman wasn't enough to hold Bill Clinton's attention, and when a third place finish in Iowa and a squeeker of a win in New Hampshire reduced Hillary Clinton from inevitable nominee to candidate on the brink, Bill Clinton cast aside the unfamiliar role of political second fiddle for the evidently more comfortable role of full-time, fully engaged surrogate candidate.

There is no question that Bill Clinton is an effective campaigner. The question, rather, is how much tolerance there will be within the Democratic party and the public at large for the spectacle of former president as political wartime consigliere. This is a political calculation as high in risk as it is in potential benefit, and as such requires more careful management than Clinton's campaign has so far given it. It is always possible, of course, that no one, with the possible exception of Senator Clinton herself, is in any position to handle Bill Clinton; in that case the entire enterprise turns on the political, and, perhaps more certainly, and therefore more unsteadily, the personal judgment of Bill Clinton himself.

It will be intriguing to observe the choices Bill Clinton makes in the
next few days' worth of campaigning in the run-up to Super Tuesday. On the one hand, we might see the Bill Clinton of 1995, carefully charting a way back to the top after some harsh political reversals. On the other hand, we could see the Bill Clinton of the second term, squandering all that he has and might yet become because of impulses to misjudgment that he simply cannot resist.

No one, including, I suspect, Bill Clinton himself, fully knows how this dynamic will play out in the coming days. But if the campaigns in Nevada, and especially South Carolina, give us any indication, it may be time for the former president to exit the stage while some opportunity to do so gracefully still exists.

1 comment:

Independent said...

I'm guessing we will see the latter. I've lost nearly all respect for the man after his stunts the last two weeks. The Clinton's have become simply disgusting.

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