Bill Clinton on Campaign Trail Assures Revival of 1990s, Good and Bad

Likely nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump prepare to deploy their own versions of Clinton administration history.

Bill Clinton's Plaid Americana: Tom Keene's Analysis

The era of peace, prosperity, and presidential sex scandals is getting a revival in the 2016 election campaign.

As Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump begin their sparring for the general election, they've both given clear indications that the race will include a re-litigation of the Bill Clinton presidency—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, has been floating the idea of her husband having a significant role in any new Clinton administration. Her campaign wants to remind voters of the booming economy of the 1990s, when the real incomes of middle-class Americans rose to an all-time high. The Clinton brand was so strong that he was able to win states in Appalachia and the South that long had been slipping from the grasp of Democrats and that the party hasn't been able to recapture since.

“I've already told my husband that if I'm so fortunate as to be president and he will be the first gentleman, I expect him to go to work,” she told supporters Monday in Kentucky.

Bill Clinton already has an idea of what that would entail.

“I have asked actually to be given the job of helping every part of the United States that has been left out and left behind economically,” he said Tuesday in Puerto Rico during one of his many campaign stops on behalf of his wife. “I go to places that don't vote for Democrats anymore.”

Trump's campaign is eagerly recounting other parts of Bill Clinton's history. The presumptive Republican nominee referenced Bill Clinton's reputation for marital infidelity on Tuesday, part of Trump's attempt to fend off attacks by Clinton allies over his own history with women. He also tagged the former president his signing of the trade pact known as NAFTA that Trump blames for shifting U.S. jobs to Mexico.

Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump
Crooked Hillary said her husband is going to be in charge of the economy.If so, he should run,not her.Will he bring the "energizer" to D.C.?
Twitter: Donald J. Trump on Twitter


Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump
How can Crooked Hillary put her husband in charge of the economy when he was responsible for NAFTA, the worst economic deal in U.S. history?
Twitter: Donald J. Trump on Twitter

While Bill Clinton provides a handy foil for Trump and brings his own baggage into the campaign, Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist, argued he will be a “net benefit” politically for Hillary Clinton.

‘The Hits Are Coming’

“The Trump campaign is going to hammer him six ways to Sunday. But he is still one of the best politicians I have seen ever on the campaign trail, with an uncanny ability to connect with voters,” Manley said in an e-mail. “Keeping him on the sidelines is not an option. The hits are coming—they are just going to have to deal with it.”

Bill Clinton brings a unique set of perils that Trump intends to exploit, personal and political. But the time Trump spends on attacking Bill Clinton takes away from focusing on Hillary Clinton, and it's unclear how much criticism of the spouse would transfer to candidate. Reliving the Bill Clinton era could make an impression on younger voters, some of whom weren't born by 1996, the last time a Clinton was fighting in a general election.

The former president can turn the tables as well by serving as his wife's attack dog, a role he played for her in the 2008 Democratic race. His intention to go into Republican strongholds also may play into the Clinton campaign's effort to put Republican-leaning states like Arizona, Missouri, and Georgia in play, and to peel away or suppress the votes of Republicans who are uneasy with Trump's stances on economic and national security policy.

Bill Clinton signaled his intent not to engage with Trump's attacking on his personal life on Tuesday in Puerto Rico when asked about the Republican calling him “the WORST abuser of woman in U.S. political history” in a Twitter post earlier in the morning.

“I think people are smart enough to figure this out without my help,” the former president said.

‘Certain Amount of Admiration’

One of Bill Clinton's main assets is national popularity—58 percent of Americans view him favorably, 36 percent unfavorably, according to a Bloomberg Politics poll taken in March. His approval rating with Democrats is even higher—87 percent, according to a January poll by YouGov.

By comparison, approval ratings for Clinton and Trump are underwater, and they're poised to be two of the most unpopular presidential nominees in modern U.S. history. The Bloomberg Politics poll found Clinton's approval rating to be 44 percent positive, 53 percent negative; Trump's was 29 percent positive, 68 percent negative.

“I think he has a certain amount of admiration,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said. “I'm sure that Bill Clinton will be a factor in this race, positive and negative,” Graham, who played a prominent role in the Clinton impeachment in 1998, added with a chuckle. 

Still, in some parts of the country, the Clinton brand has aged less like Nirvana and more like the Walkman and AOL Instant Messenger. Hillary Clinton claimed a narrow win over Bernie Sanders in Kentucky on Tuesday, one week after her double-digit loss in West Virginia. Both states, which she won overwhelmingly in the 2008 primaries and which Bill Clinton won twice in the presidential election, are practically out of reach for Democrats this November. Hillary Clinton's move to elevate the profile of the last Democratic presidential candidate to also win states like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri will test how much clout the former president still has with voters.

Bill Clinton's political talents are legendary—from his smoothly delivered empathy with economically downtrodden voters to his encyclopedic grasp of policy. But he has, at times, been a problematic salesperson for his wife, tending to go off-script and lose his cool when she's under attack. In 2008, he angered the black community by trying to diminish Barack Obama's victory in South Carolina by comparing it to Jesse Jackson's victories there in 1988. More recently, in April, he expressed regret for his confrontational attitude toward a Black Lives Matter protester who blamed his 1994 anti-crime bill for disproportionately targeting blacks.

Hillary Clinton’s decision to give him a prominent role indicates she views the benefits outweigh any negatives for her political prospects. But in opting not to give him a formal role, her campaign is prepared to change course on a whim if it decides he's ultimately a burden.

Clinton campaign spokesman Nick Merrill said the ex-president brings “a lot of creativity and knowledge...particularly when it comes to the economy” and that she'd want his “advice and counsel” on “revitalizing certain regions or certain sectors” such as coal and manufacturing.

But he added, “It would be getting ahead of oneself to talk about any sort of formalized role for anyone in your administration.”

—With assistance from Jennifer Epstein in Puerto Rico.

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