Opinion

Opinion: Don’t Expect to See Bill Clinton Campaigning for Hopeful Democrats

The ‘invisible man’ on the campaign trail

Former President Bill Clinton speaks Wednesday at the Robert Francis Kennedy memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery held on the 50th anniversary of RFK’s assassination. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

In the Wednesday morning quarterbacking after Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race, one criticism was that she had not employed that consummate politician former President Bill Clinton enough in her campaign, to speak to “the people” he could connect with and she could not.

But for all the mistakes the Clinton 2016 campaign operation and the candidate herself made — and there were plenty — sidelining Bill was not one of them.

The star of the presidential wunderkind of the 1990s already had become tarnished, his political mojo faded in the new century. Hillary perhaps had remembered how he stole the show — and not in a good way — during her 2008 presidential run, when he wore his joking “first black president” moniker into the ground with the Democratic Party’s most loyal base and his antics in the South Carolina primary ennobled rather than diminished the first-term African-American senator named Barack Obama.

When she did employ her husband during her competitive 2016 primary fight with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, perhaps in search of that old Clinton magic, rather than feel potential voters’ pain, he wagged a defensive finger as he lectured young activists protesting his 1994 crime bill and its consequences of mass incarceration that haunt the country still.

Since Hillary Clinton had already apologized for her 1996 sound bite calling young offenders “super predators,” finding other tasks for her scene-stealing husband was probably a wise call.

Even when Bill was not front and center, his presence at a debate loomed even larger than a hovering Donald Trump, whose campaign sat his accusers of sexual misconduct (Bill’s not Donald’s) in the audience.

Poor timing

After Bill Clinton’s latest return to the media spotlight, competitive Democrats hoping to capture the House and praying for a chance at a Senate majority might be wishing he had not picked this moment to embark on a book tour and find a way to land smack in the middle of a #MeToo movement — and not in a good way.

Co-author James Patterson might be having second thoughts, as well, though when you invite Bill Clinton as a writing partner you have to know he’s going to take over, one way or the other, even when that book is titled “The President Is Missing.”

In an NBC interview that, like a wreck on the side of the road, was difficult to turn away from, it was clear that the times — and on reflection, Bill Clinton’s place in them — have changed. It’s not just some policies, such as maximum-minimum sentencing, that have curdled.

Surprisingly for someone once judged so astute, Clinton seemingly had not anticipated Craig Melvin’s questions on Monica Lewinsky. Instead of saying he apologized then and remains sorry today, a reasonable outreach even if he felt unfairly blindsided, the former president leaned in to defend himself, note his $16 million in legal fee debt and compare the media circus surrounding his personal scandals to the attention paid to the transgressions of the current White House occupant.

That Clinton charm was nowhere to be found.

It’s true that Donald Trump faces his own litany of accusers, including former Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos, now suing the president for defamation (a judge has ruled Trump can be deposed), a profane “Access Hollywood” tape, and a Cabinet and staff marked by accusations of incompetence and corruption — with EPA chief Scott Pruitt and the Russia investigation making daily headlines.

Clinton’s supporters would take his flaws over Trump’s mountain of political and personal indignities, especially if you throw in more judges such as Clinton Supreme Court pick Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But a game of “whataboutism” and a reminder from Bill Clinton of all the women he hired and promoted does not excuse Clinton’s reckless behavior with a White House intern in her 20s when he was the president of the United States. Saying that two-thirds of the American people were on your side makes you sound a little too much like another president who measures success by crowd size and ratings.

Her new voice

Lewinsky has found her public voice in recent years, in a TED Talk on shame and bullying, and a Vanity Fair article recognizing the power imbalance in a relationship she nevertheless and forthrightly has owned as consensual. She has earned it after a life upended and then reclaimed, for the years in which she certainly paid a higher price than the adult president in the room.

Her words resonate with a generation of women and men who are discussing relationships — healthy, toxic and in-between — and finding their way on what is and is not acceptable at work and in life. And they vote. Few of these voters have any nostalgia or patience for Bill Clinton and have moved on to craving new voices and politicians.

On CNN, Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, when asked about Clinton’s TV appearance, said the former president should make things right with Lewinsky: “I was raised that when you screw up and you make a mistake, you say sorry, and if it’s not good enough for the person you are apologizing to, you keep saying sorry until they feel comfortable and you are recognizing that you made a mistake.” Clinton has followed his initial words with versions of a walk-back — on CNN and in a visit with Stephen Colbert — but if he thought he would get a pass, he was mistaken.

Any hope for a Democratic wave in the fall depends on enthusiasm from women and young voters who are looking to the future rather than the past. The result of Tuesday’s primaries in California and other states show tough races across the country. So expect Bill Clinton to be the invisible man on the campaign trail, as nervous Democrats who want to offer fresh ideas show little interest in half-hearted apologies from a tainted surrogate.

Bill Clinton himself has acknowledged that much has changed in 20 years — in a good way.

Watch: Bill Clinton, Joe Kennedy III, John Lewis Remember RFK at Arlington

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc 

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