Why Bill Won’t Blow 2016 for Hillary

Former President Clinton learned the tough lessons of his wife’s 2008 bid.

Former US President Bill Clinton speaks at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) on September 24, 2013 in New York.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
Oct. 30, 2013, 1 a.m.

Stand­ing against a back wall, smil­ing as he scanned the crowd of Demo­crats at James Madis­on Uni­versity, Glenn Huff­man seemed open to an­swer­ing a ques­tion. What do you think of Bill Clin­ton? “He’s a bas­tard,” Huff­man replied. “That Mon­ica Lew­in­sky thing just about ruined his pres­id­ency.”

Dude must be a hater. Ex­cept that Huff­man had stood in a 30-minute line to at­tend a joint ap­pear­ance Tues­day of the former pres­id­ent and Terry McAul­iffe, the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate for gov­ernor of Vir­gin­ia. Why are you here? “I came to see Bill,” he shrugged. “Oth­er than that Lew­in­sky thing, he was a suc­cess­ful and pop­u­lar pres­id­ent. I love the man. Love to listen to the man.”

As Huff­man pulled me closer to chat more about Clin­ton, I real­ized that the lib­rar­i­an from Bridge­wa­ter, Va., might be a win­dow in­to 2016, when the ex-pres­id­ent’s wife Hil­lary could make a second run for the pres­id­ency. Be­cause if there’s one word that de­scribes the feel­ings Hil­lary Clin­ton’s friends and ad­visers have for Bill Clin­ton it would be am­bi­val­ent. He hurt her cam­paign in 2008, they say, but if she runs again, Bubba won’t blow it.

Six years ago, it was a dif­fer­ent story. In Ju­ly 2007, as Clin­ton pre­pared to make his first cam­paign trip on be­half of his wife, I wrote about his self-ab­sorp­tion and her team’s fears that the former pres­id­ent wouldn’t be able to con­trol his ego. “Her ad­visers privately fret that the former pres­id­ent will over­shad­ow Sen. Clin­ton with his un­par­alleled cam­paign skills and ca­reer-long habit of draw­ing at­ten­tion to him­self,” the column said. “One of her con­fid­ants, still sting­ing from the Mon­ica Lew­in­sky af­fair, refers to Clin­ton as ‘Mr. Me.’”

Months later, Clin­ton’s vig­or­ous de­fense of his wife and of his own re­cord threatened to di­vide the Demo­crat­ic Party bey­ond the 2008 nom­in­a­tion fight with then-Sen. Barack Obama. Ham-handed at­tacks on Obama, par­tic­u­larly in South Car­o­lina, caused long-time al­lies to fear that Clin­ton had lost a step polit­ic­ally. Some thought he was more of a li­ab­il­ity than as­set.

Look­ing back, some fam­ily friends and ad­visers be­lieve that Clin­ton’s health (he re­ceived quad­ruple heart by­pass sur­gery in 2004) was still sub-par in 2008, mak­ing him moody, tired, and im­pa­tient. “He’d lost that sunny op­tim­ism that made him so great,” said a friend. “It’s back, thank God.”

Des­pite ill health, a com­pet­it­ive streak sharpened by sev­en elec­tion cycles in Arkan­sas and two pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns had not softened in 2008. This made Clin­ton thin-skinned and vul­ner­able. “Obama’s guys baited him,” a second friend said. “And he took the hook.”

In the last five years, Clin­ton has ma­tured along with his glob­al found­a­tion, learn­ing that with the ab­sence polit­ic­al power de­rived from elect­ive of­fice he needs to be more con­sultat­ive and less com­bat­ive, as­so­ci­ates say, a team play­er rather than an al­pha male. Friends de­scribe him as listen­ing more and talk­ing less dur­ing meet­ings, ced­ing rather than scor­ing points.

The evol­u­tion in­cludes the ob­vi­ous ““ shar­ing power with his wife and daugh­ter Chelsea in the found­a­tion. But it’s more than that. In ne­go­ti­ations with for­eign lead­ers, Clin­ton is no longer a peer, and that new dy­nam­ic has helped change him. He’s learned the power of hu­mil­ity, said an ad­visor, who men­tioned yet an­oth­er cata­lyst: Clin­ton is 67, and he’s learned not to sweat the small stuff.

Clin­ton’s pivot began shortly after his wife lost the nom­in­a­tion. De­term­ined to help elect Obama and re­fur­bish his repu­ta­tion, the former pres­id­ent spent days writ­ing and re­hears­ing his 2008 con­ven­tion ad­dress. Twenty hours be­fore the speech, Clin­ton was still scrib­bling in note­pads past mid­night, ob­li­vi­ous to fam­ily and friends gathered to toast his wife, who had just de­livered her con­ven­tion ad­dress.  “I gotta get this right,” he told me. “Gotta get this right.”

Bad habits die hard. Clin­ton is still pro­mot­ing his pres­id­ency, even while cam­paign­ing for McAul­iffe. “I gave you four sur­plus budgets, all those jobs, de­clin­ing poverty,” he told an ad­or­ing crowd. But he still is the na­tion’s greatest liv­ing politi­cian, es­pe­cially when it comes to fram­ing a de­bate. Clin­ton’s take­down of GOP can­did­ate Mitt Rom­ney in 2012 pre­scribed the fall nar­rat­ive for Obama.

Clin­ton has a rare abil­ity to de­mon­ize op­pon­ents without look­ing mean or petty, as demon­strated again Tues­day at JMU when he at­tacked Vir­gin­ia Re­pub­lic­ans for re­fus­ing fed­er­al money un­der Obama­care. Ad­opt­ing the voice of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, Clin­ton told the crowd, “OK, Vir­gin­ia, you gave us the money and you don’t want it back. You want us to send your money some­where else and you want your hos­pit­als hold­ing the bag for the un­in­sured, which means every­body else’s in­sur­ance rates are go­ing up. That’s what this is about: Di­vide and con­quer.”

In just two sen­tences, Clin­ton ex­plained a com­plic­ated policy and di­min­ished the GOP. On stage, McAul­iffe smiled and nod­ded. At the back of the room, Huff­man grabbed my el­bow and said, “What’s not to like about him?”

The lib­rar­i­an briefly re­flec­ted again on the Lew­in­sky scan­dal then shrugged. “He may not be per­fect,” Huff­man said, “but he’s the guy you want ar­guing your case.”

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