Published in the New York Post on December 27, 2007.
As Bill Clinton crisscrosses America defending his wife’s candidacy, he’s fueling speculation about who’d be in charge should Hillary be elected. Sen. Clinton – the incredible shrinking candidate – seems at times almost a bystander at her husband’s campaign, merely playing a somewhat more active role than she did in ’92.
In our modern era of dynastic politics, the elder members of the dynasties have a duty to step aside to let their less experienced heirs shine. Former President George H.W. Bush, for example, has stayed well out of the limelight to let his son have center stage. Yet Bill Clinton is playing an ever-larger role in his wife’s campaign.
At first, his appearances were novel and politically helpful. But then they came to underscore her weakness. It was as if Dennis Thatcher had stood up for Maggie as she faced down the Argentine junta in the Falklands war. Now, Bill’s oversized presence on the national stage raises an even more profound question: Is he using his wife’s candidacy to seek a third term in office, prohibited him by the 22nd Amendment?
Increasingly, he seems like former Gov. George Wallace – who put his wife Lurleen into the Alabama State House after he was forced from office by term limits. (Or, in a more recent example, like Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, who stepped aside only to have his wife, Christina Fernandez Kirchner, take power.)
In ’90, Hillary Clinton faced a similar problem when she flirted with the idea of running for governor of Arkansas. Bill, determined to seek the presidency in ’92, was weighing whether to run for another term as governor or to step down and seek the presidency as a private citizen. Key to his decision was whether Hillary could take his place, both to keep the seat warm for him should he lose the presidential race and to stop any unwanted revelations from surfacing while he was off campaigning.
But the polls I took at the Clintons’ behest found that voters saw Hillary merely as an extension of Bill, not as an independent political figure. Arkansans saw her possible candidacy for governor as an attempt to be a placeholder for her husband.
When I likened the public reaction to Hillary’s candidacy to that of Alabama voters to Lurleen’s years before, Hillary and Bill exploded in shock and indignation (more his than hers) at the metaphor; they even asked me to do a second poll to confirm the results.
Hillary thereupon began a 20-year effort to differentiate herself from Bill and craft an independent identity.
Now that project is at risk. Bill’s intervention has become so overt, voluble, high-profile and independent that it calls into question the entire premise that Hillary is running for president as anything other than a figurehead.
The idea that you get “two for the price of one” was a misnomer in the ’92 campaign when Bill first broached it. He was always the president. Yes, Hillary was his chief adviser in ’93 and ’94 (and again between ’98 and ’00). But in ’95, ’96 and ’97, she acted merely as first lady, touring the world and promoting her book.
Until Bill began his active campaigning for Hillary, she benefited from the merger of their identities. Lacking much experience on her own (except for the health-care debacle), she could expropriate his record to provide a basis for her candidacy. She could run promising an extension of his presidency, but in a new time with a new candidate at the top.
But now the merger is working against her. Voters are wondering for which Clinton they will be voting when they pull the lever.
Could it be that “two for the price of one” still misrepresents reality? Does Bill so dominate the stage that he’d overshadow his wife were she elected? As Bill campaigns all over all the time, Americans are wondering, “Whose presidency will it be, anyway?”