The man who was once bête noire of the vast right-wing conspiracy now stars in Republican talking points. Twice in recent weeks, Bill Clinton has gone badly off-message in his role as a surrogate for Barack Obama. First Clinton praised Mitt Romney’s “sterling” business record. Then he appeared to endorse a temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts for high income earners, a position at odds with the current president’s.
Clinton later reaffirmed his opposition to tax cuts for the wealthy—after all, he’s the one who raised the top marginal tax rate in 1993—and issued a rambling apology. An aide suggested to Politico that the poor 42nd president was batty with age. “He’s 65 years old,” the Clinton insider explained.
Others speculate that Clinton is trying to undermine Obama in order to boost his wife’s 2016 prospects. Ralph Nader has expressed this opinion, as has former Clinton adviser turned perennially wrong pundit Dick Morris. (Perhaps Morris is looking to yank his 2005 book Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race out of the discount racks.) “Bill Clinton does not want Barack Obama to win,” he asserted on Fox News.
Few ask what seems to be the more obvious question: Why is Clinton such a ubiquitous presence in Obama’s reelection campaign in the first place? When Team Obama decided to produce an ad touting the president’s successful hit on Osama bin Laden—spiking the football, some might say—they rolled out Clinton as the narrator. Obama and Clinton held a joint fundraiser in New York City modestly billed as “An Evening with Two Presidents.”
One lucky donor got to win a pair of tickets to the dual fundraiser, with a hotel room and airfare thrown in. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, who is apparently not the same person who sang with Kenny Loggins, enthused, “Meeting two presidents at the same time? Now, that’s almost ridiculously cool.”
When Obama decided to extend the full Bush tax cuts at the end of 2010, he brought Clinton in to persuade reluctant congressional Democrats to go along. Obama even left a White House press conference on the tax deal midway through and let the former president conduct it by himself. No wonder poor old Bill is confused about what his position on the tax cuts should be!
Former presidents frequently endorse their party’s subsequent presidential nominees. They often deliver major speeches at the national convention. The occasional campaign trail appearance isn’t uncommon. Jimmy Carter has conducted freelance diplomacy and Richard Nixon advised all his successors. But it is unheard of for two presidents to be this joined at the hip, even though others might have benefited from a similar arrangement. George Bush could have used Ronald Reagan in his ads during the 1992 primaries, for example.
What makes their partnership even more unusual is the bad blood between Clinton and Obama. Clinton strongly supported his wife’s presidential bid in 2008. He dismissed Obama as a “kid” and a “fairy tale.” Some Democrats thought Clinton was race-baiting; Clinton loyalists felt Obama backers were playing the race card against the ex-president and his wife.
Despite his reputation as a political genius, Bill’s contributions to Hillary’s campaign were almost uniformly bad. He overrode advisers who wanted to bypass South Carolina, insisting that he could use his Southern roots and popularity with black voters to erode Obama’s advantages there. Hillary ended up losing South Carolina by nearly 29 points. Bill then denied the significance of Obama’s triumph, saying that Jesse Jackson had won South Carolina too.
More importantly, the Clintons sided with George W. Bush on the invasion of Iraq. The former president made supportive comments at the time. As a senator from New York, Hillary actually voted for the war. Obama’s opposition to the war was crucial to winning the nomination, though Clinton correctly pointed out that this opposition was largely limited to an antiwar speech and that Obama’s Iraq voting record was virtually indistinguishable from Hillary’s while the two served together.
For his part, Obama once told an interviewer that he wanted to be a transformative president like Reagan rather than being consumed with school uniforms and other small initiatives like Clinton. The New York Times recently noted that Obama is still more likely to invoke Reagan than Clinton, with most Bubba quotes on the stump coming from Romney. Many progressives were initially drawn to Obama as a rejection of the centrist, business-friendly policies of Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council.
Today Obama counts on Clinton’s business-friendliness to coax Wall Street financiers to open up their wallets for the Democratic ticket. Clinton, who unlike most of his predecessors seems unable to give up politics and get a life outside the White House, latches on to Obama for continued relevance.
It’s a marriage of inconvenience, but it’s unlikely to end anytime soon.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator and a contributing editor of The American Conservative.
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