What about Bill?

There’s a Beltway insiders’ tale about how Hillary Clinton, upon becoming first lady in 2000, was invited to a welcome-to-Washington luncheon by the Washington Post’s Sally Quinn.  When Hillary declined, the offended hostess spread the word: “There’s just something about her that pisses people off!” 

Millions of Americans are now saying – or thinking – the same thing.  Hill has a credibility deficit that’s bogging down her presidential bid.  This may especially surprise Bernie Sanders, who tiptoed into the national spotlight from the small state of Vermont, better known for maple syrup than sweet-talking politicians.  But Bernie has tapped into something that some Democrats find lacking in their front-runner. 

The presumption had always been that candidate Clinton would enjoy smooth sailing on her journey to becoming the 2016 Democrat standard-bearer.  For years she has been homing in on that lofty ambition with laser-like intensity.  She and Bill have raised buckets of money toward that goal.  And they would raise cain, too, if a popular progressive like Elizabeth Warren had dared to throw her Native American headdress into the ring.  

Some speculate that a deal was struck between the unfriendly Clintons and Obama, whereby Bubba’s charm and influence on behalf of Barack’s 2012 re-election would be gratefully reciprocated four years hence.  The agreement may have stipulated that at the end of his second term, Obama would, in effect, lie low and let the Clintons boomerang back into the White House. 

But the road to that end has been plagued not only by Benghazi-gate and server-gate, but by unflattering jokes about Hillary’s reception at the gates of heaven.  As a result, her political survival could come to depend on the role played by Bill Clinton.  Democratic strategists disagree as to whether he would be an asset – I cringe even writing the word! – or a liability.  According to one pollster, Bill is “good for money… strategy … and … turnout.”  Another, however, worries that he will end up attacking opponents like a loose cannon, rather than harking back to the economic calm of his own presidency.   

Bill Clinton’s resurgence from disgrace to embrace with the majority of Americans is a national political enigma worthy of his designation as “the Teflon president.”  So should he hit the hustings or remain mostly in the background as Hillary’s Svengali?

For some, Bill Clinton oozes charm.  For others, he is Slick Willy.  Thus, he could grease his wife’s ambitions in either direction.  If he becomes too prominent a figure, it opens up the Clinton campaign to charges of a possible “co-presidency,” the “two for the price of one” premise they advanced almost a quarter of a century ago.  This might not sit well with those who actually respect the laws of the land.  However, Hill and Bill are not among them. 

The Clintons own four expensive domiciles and are rarely in the same one at the same time.  So since we’re not asking “if” Bill Clinton would be moving back into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with Hillary, shouldn’t we be asking “why”?  Will he preside in the East Room over high tea for congressional spouses?  Will he continue to mulch Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden on the White House lawn, and lecture the nation on the values of good nutrition?

The fact is that Bill Clinton, whatever his shortcomings and prior sins, enjoys a level of popularity that Hilary and other present politicians can only dream of.  His 56% approval rating is at the very least a dozen points higher than that of Hillary, Obama, and George W. Bush.  Can the Democrats mine that vein of gold without making the candidate’s persona seem dull by comparison?

There’s as much as a 25-point gap between Hillary Clinton’s popularity among women and men.  The reason is mostly the desire of women to elect the first female president.  For some, it is also a way of taking revenge on philandering Bill by putting his put-upon wife in the Capitol catbird seat. 

Hillary supporters can boast all they want about her accomplishments.  But the ironic fact is that her career in politics has been made possible due to her being married to Bill Clinton.  It’s the reason she has stuck with him through any number of personal humiliations – and against all her righteous rhetoric about the prideful empowerment of women.

So it is not surprising for Hillary to feel entitled to whatever she can get from the spousal connection this last time around.  Subtlety is hardly the Clintons’ long suit.  So far, Bill has kept – or been kept – on the periphery.  That could quickly change. 

There’s something else that has come to the attention of observant voters: the stunned recognition that Bill Clinton is now a shadow of his former self.  He’s pushing 70, after all, so one expects some signs of slowing down.  Even so, Bubba often seems, well, rather tentative – as if he’s there, but he’s not.  When a reporter asked him about his excessive speaking fees, the former president’s response (“I have to pay the bills!”) seemed more distracted than facetious.  On a deeply personal level, he may be paying big time for Hillary’s run.  But no one doubts that it’s become his obsession, too. 

Is there a chance that a testy Bill could blow a fuse on the campaign trail, or a fading Bill could burn out altogether?  Is anyone speculating about what Hillary might do if her husband slips farther?  In searching for the answers, perhaps it’s time for Hillary’s medium to once again summon up the ghost of her client’s idol, Eleanor Roosevelt.