Has Bill Clinton's Baggage Gotten Too Heavy to Carry?

His foundation has taken center stage in his wife's campaign for the presidency.

US President Bill Clinton accepts the applause of members of Congress late 19 January on his arrival at the podium for his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

US President Bill Clinton accepts the applause of members of Congress late 19 January on his arrival at the podium for his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

WIN MCNAMEE/AFP/Getty Images

Before Hillary Clinton can become the first female president of the United States she has to run, again, as someone whose singular, complicated, beloved and beleaguered husband used to have the job. And only days into that effort, Bill Clinton’s baggage is already being dragged into the front hall.

The good, the not-good and the indissoluble, it’s all on view, to the surprise of nobody: In a Washington Post piece on Bill and Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches, we see the guy who can without question put derrieres in chairs, raking in more than $100 million for paid speeches between 2001 and 2013.  But there, too, is the fellow who hasn’t always been finicky about potential conflicts.  

A New York Times story about Russia’s takeover of a Canadian company’s extensive uranium holdings detailed even more potentially problematic ties. In it, we see the man who’s indisputably done enormous good as an ex-president, some of it while dealing with not-so-fine folks

Naturally, Clinton’s many possible GOP rivals are revulsed and delighted by all of this. One of them, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who is expected to announce her own presidential bid in early May, said in a statement, "It's the Clinton way: raking in millions from foreign governments behind closed doors while making promises about transparency that they never intended to keep.’’

on April 21, 2015 in Washington, DC.
on April 21, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

So, what’s the candidate to do—and not to do? Obviously, she won’t be sitting down for any joint interviews with her spouse any time soon. 

But in a sense, Hillary Clinton can no more do anything about the challenges her husband brings her than Jeb Bush can change his last name. And as in the case of the former Florida governor, it’s unlikely she’d want to.

Though most of the attention is on all the question marks Bill Clinton brings his partner in life, politics and philanthropy, her supporters don’t seem too worried about a repeat of his blunders during her campaign in 2008, when he said of Barack Obama’s portrayal of her record on Iraq, “Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.” He also compared Barack Obama’s victory in the South Carolina primary to the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s success in the state 20 years earlier. And he accused the Obama campaign of having “played the race card on me” when they objected.  

Seven years later, Clinton himself suggests that that guy is gone for good: "I've told Hillary that I don't think I'm good” on the stump any more, he told Town & Country recently, “because I'm not mad at anybody. I'm a grandfather, and I got to see my granddaughter last night, and I can't be mad.”

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 07: Former President Bill Clinton speaks at the 2015 Meeting of Clinton Global Initiative University at University of Miami on March 7, 2015 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - MARCH 07: Former President Bill Clinton speaks at the 2015 Meeting of Clinton Global Initiative University at University of Miami on March 7, 2015 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images)
Photographer: Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images

But the only reason he isn’t on the trail yet, says Peter Fox-Penner, an energy consultant who describes himself as a “very happy Hillary supporter right now” is that voters first have to hear her message from her: “Everybody has to understand she’s the candidate, he isn’t. That has to be clear, and I think it is, but those are relationships she builds, and she alone.”

The crisis consultant Chris Lehane, who worked for Bill Clinton and later served as the press secretary to Al Gore’s presidential campaign, said leaving the former president off the trail at any point would be like leaving Michael Jordan at the peak of his powers on the bench: “Even if you’re not using him, you’re still going to get asked the same questions” about him, so “the earlier you can get him out there, the better.”

The Gore campaign struggled and sweated over when and how to bring Bill Clinton onto the trail—but mostly because the candidate and his wife, whose daughters are around Monica Lewinsky’s age, were angry at the president over his relationship with the former White House intern.

“The challenge for any vice president” running for president, Lehane said, “is to demonstrate they’re their own person, and strong,’’ because the nature of the job puts any v.p. in a secondary, supporting role. “And I went through some of this with Gore; you have to show you can walk on your own two feet.”

But Hillary Clinton doesn’t need to distance herself because by virtue of her time in the Senate and as secretary of state, Lehane argues that even her critics don’t doubt her strength. And given that her central message is reaching out to the middle class, he asks, “Who has a better record of delivering to the middle class than Bill Clinton?”

Whenever he’s asked to do polling, Lehane said he likes to throw in a question about whether the respondents voted for Bill Clinton—and he finds, he said, that something like 67 percent of voters say they did, even though Clinton never got better than 50 percent of the vote. So yes, many Americans do remember the 90s and the man who was in the White House then quite fondly.

The Democratic consultant and analyst Donna Brazile, who ran the Gore campaign, regrets still that “we were not able to use any of the good stuff, including the good economy, because we were too busy trying to prove he was his own man” apart from Bill Clinton. But there is zero chance Hillary Clinton will make that mistake, she said, even if “every spouse has to be deployed strategically.”

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