It’s the Other Clinton, Stupid: But Can She Win Without Bill?

Posted June 25, 2007 at 3:41pm

This presidential race is still in its opening innings and already Team Hillary is calling former President Bill Clinton off the bench to join her for an Independence Day campaign swing through Iowa. Up to this point, Bill has been meeting with major donors in intimate dinners and headlining larger fundraising events. His Iowa visit is only the second joint Clinton appearance since the start of her campaign. The first, at the civil rights commemoration in Selma, Ala., was handled with the delicacy of a well-trained bomb squad, which is wise because Bill mishandled could blow the entire campaign out of the water. [IMGCAP(1)]

Back when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) announced, the whisperers in Washington, D.C., told us not to expect Bill on the trail until the fall. Does this accelerated timetable — coinciding with the release of the all-important second-quarter fundraising results — mean that Hillary is in trouble? Or does it mean that she is so close to gaining the nomination that a little help from Bill will push her to a point where she can’t be caught? Talk about inevitability!

Certainly, Bill Clinton brings many advantages for the Democratic frontrunner and the current woman to beat. He’s a valued political strategist with a sharp eye for knowing exactly what voters want in a president and he has the personality that allows people to believe he’s on their side. Remember, Bill Clinton left the White House with an approval rating higher than any president since World War II. There’s no question that Bill Clinton can help Sen. Clinton raise her profile in a state that matters in both the primary and general election.

Bill Clinton also can bring in voters and checks that Hillary can’t. Barely campaigning in the Iowa caucuses in 1992, Clinton still won the Hawkeye State in the general election, and he won it again in 1996. His legacy carries much-needed weight as Hillary dukes it out in Iowa, where the leading Democrat among voters was “undecided” at 27 percent in the Mason-Dixon poll conducted June 13-15. The three closest followers — Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) — all measured up at about 20 percent, with no lead greater than the reported margin of error. A few choice words, some moving oratory, maybe a select thumb-point or two, could be exactly the boost Hillary needs to separate herself from the pack. Riding his coattails could deliver her a share of Edwards’ clutch on the moderate, Democratic white males whose support may prove pivotal in determining the nominee.

But even if it works out exactly as planned, even if Bill pinch-hits in some small, strategically chosen events and invigorates the campaign’s sails, he may still end up doing more harm than good. With Bill on the stump for anything other than fundraising, the message becomes “Restore the Clinton Regime — Things Were Better Then.” Not only does that undercut her candidacy by making voters question which Clinton they are electing, it repositions the campaign in the decidedly wrong direction: looking backward.

The election climate is clearly one of change and hope for better leaders in the future. It’s also about experience and competence — traits that suit Sen. Clinton well. With both the president and Congress at all-time low approval ratings, there’s clearly some desire to look forward to the next president and Congress.

The 2006 midterms reflected voters’ widespread contempt for business as usual in Washington, but they will not be the last election to call for a new direction. Voters are sick of having a government awash in corruption, patronage and “spin” that never seems to get anything done. Most voters think “politician” is still a dirty word. In 2008, voters will be looking for something better, something more, and a stump speech that says, “Well, a decade ago we weren’t at war and the economy was strong” isn’t going to cut it. Voters need more than that, especially since many of them are just waking up to the devastating and long-lasting effects the Iraq War will have on the lives of our citizens, our economy and our place in the world.

All signs point to voters electing an experienced outsider to take control of Washington — an area Bill Clinton won’t be helpful.

Hillary must be careful in deploying the popular former president. He certainly can help win over some undecided voters. But in the end, it’s all about Hillary Clinton — not the other Clinton. She, like every other candidate seeking to lead this country, must prove that she has a vision for the future better than the here and now and the experience to make it happen. Sen. Clinton must articulate, as she has in the early debates, how she will solve important challenges facing this country. She must inspire us to win and show us that she can lead us out of this dismal state of gridlock.

If she can’t do that on her own, then no one, not even Bill, can save her. If she can, well, welcome Madame President.

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.