Hillary Clinton's got a scheduling problem. To make it to 2016, she must first traverse 2014 and somehow avoid the twin traps that seem destined to hurt her as a presidential candidate.
If she comes to the aid of needy Democrats, she'll be criticized for stealing the headlines when she shows up on the stump. If she keeps her powder dry, the party's voters will lambast her if Democrats are clobbered and Senate control shifts to the GOP.
How can this once-bitten, twice-shy presumed candidate navigate such a catch-22? Enter Bill.
There are three people in the Democratic Party who are in a fundraising class unto themselves. One of them is the president. The other two are named Clinton.
Bill Clinton can go where his wife cannot or prefers not to, generating cash, media attention, and goodwill for Democratic candidates wherever he brings his Arkansas drawl.
That's a familial advantage no other candidate, Republican or Democrat, can match. If only she would take advantage of it.
"Everyone for years talked about how Al Gore made this huge mistake in 2000 by not using the president that year. But then [Hillary's campaign] did the same thing in 2008," says a former Clinton campaign aide. There was a "proactive" effort to sideline the former president six years ago, the aide said, on the theory that "she needed to be her own person and shut that part of the world out."
A lot has changed since then. Clinton has moved out of her husband's shadow, becoming something more than a by-product of his administration. And Bill has become a better surrogate. In fact, after hurting himself and his wife in 2008 with a series of controversial comments about Barack Obama's candidacy, he proved his value to the president and the party four years later. Indeed, Bill Clinton today is widely considered the best surrogate in the party.
"I think they learned the hard way last time, and I don't think they'll make the same mistake again," the former aide said.
Democrats should hope so, because it really matters. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that an endorsement from Bill has a bigger impact than one from Hillary or Obama. According to the survey, 37 percent of voters said they were more likely to vote for a candidate if he or she has Bill Clinton's backing. An Obama endorsement made only 22 percent of voters more likely to back a candidate, while Hillary Clinton's support made only 25 percent of voters more likely to vote for that contender.
In fact, Bill makes such a good surrogate that Republicans are already trying to neutralize him. Some Democrats guess this was Rand Paul's aim when he dredged up the former president's relationship with Monica Lewinsky in the weeks before Bill was to campaign against Kentucky's other senator—Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
And Bill Clinton is just getting started. In addition to coming out for McConnell's challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes, he has campaigned for Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor, who is facing a tough reelection bid in Arkansas. He's also intervened in lower-profile races to help longtime friends of the family, such as Marjorie Margolies, Chelsea Clinton's mother-in-law, who is in a heated primary for a Pennsylvania House seat, and Seth Magaziner, the son of Clinton aide Ira Magaziner, who is running for treasurer in Rhode Island.
Those benefiting from his appearances certainly seem satisfied with having the stand-in. "I haven't heard anybody say we need Hillary instead of Bill," says Sam Roecker, the campaign manager for Dave O'Brien, a Democratic congressional candidate in Iowa—a state Hillary Clinton simply cannot enter if she really intends to keep a low profile this far out from 2016. "He's a great surrogate for Hillary and any other Democrat. He has a really broad appeal that not a lot of other surrogates have," Roecker adds.
Some close to Hillary Clinton's orbit expect she'll put a toe into the midterm waters before diving more deeply after her book is published this summer. Certainly, she's still useful to Democrats via behind-the-scenes fundraising or lending her name to email solicitations.
And it's here that the Clintons could complement one another. "I could see Bill campaigning for someone, and Hillary happens to be in the same state at a fundraiser or giving a policy speech, but it doesn't make sense to me for her to be on stage," said another Washington Democratic operative not involved in Clintonland.
Because when Hillary campaigns for someone, it will be seen as a means to boost herself. When Bill stumps for a candidate, it will be seen more as an end unto itself.
Except, of course, when it also helps his wife.
This article appears in the April 5, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Clinton's 2014 Escape Hatch.