How Hillary Clinton Escapes the 2014 Trap

It’s a perilous time for the Democratic front-runner, but she’s got a way to wield influence while avoiding blame.

Democratic presidential hopeful New York Senator Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea Clinton (C) listen as former US president Bill Clinton speaks, at a campaign event at W.H. Lyon Fairgrounds in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on June 2, 2008.  
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Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
April 3, 2014, 5 p.m.

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.

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