4:10 pm Oct. 19, 2012
The Obama campaign's announcement today that its closing statement to voters will feature a direct-to-camera TV ad by Bill Clinton raises a question: Why has the former president been a more effective campaign surrogate for Obama, his former foe, than he was for his own wife?
Praised by both Obama and Mitt Romney alike, Clinton's value to the Democratic ticket this time isn't (or shouldn't be) in dispute, for his line about "arithmetic" that became a rallying cry for the Obama campaign, to his simple, attack-blunting denial that Barack Obama was seeking to undo his welfare reforms.
Contrary to popular recollection, Clinton’s stumping on Hillary’s behalf in 2008 wasn’t all bad. Yes, Clinton had some real flare-ups in 2008, and it’s these images—telling Charlie Rose a vote for Obama was “a roll of the dice,” likening him to Jesse Jackson, getting red-faced in encounters with the press—that came to dominate the narrative and present a drag on Hillary's efforts during some crucial stretches of the campaign. (Never mind the armchair psychology about him actually wanting Hillary to lose on some level, which is nonsense.) But Clinton also motivated lots of voters to go the polls, showing up in towns like Clarksburg, W.V., that were unaccustomed to governors visiting them, let alone former presidents. It was a mixed performance.
Clinton is obviously having a different effect this time around, from the convention-defining speech in Denver to his regularly demonstrated ability since then to advocate more effectively for the Obama agenda than Obama himself can. In 2008, he was an unpredictable weapon, to be deployed with care in front of friendly audiences; this time, Obama has jokingly suggested nominating as him "secretary of explaining stuff."
So what's different?
It's not about the effort Bill Clinton is putting in or his enthusiasm for the task, certainly.
One day during the 2008 primary in the Clinton war room, I was writing up an email to some colleagues recapping the day and listing some reporters we needed to get back to. There was a pro forma inquiry from a local paper in an uncompetitive state, and I wrote something like, “Someone needs to call them to answer basic questions.”
“I’ll call ‘em,” someone behind me volunteered.
Unknown to me, Clinton, who didn’t visit very often, had been peeking at my computer over my shoulder.
“You said someone needs to call them," he said. "I’ll do it.”
We ultimately talked him out of it—the job was more suited to a junior or mid-level staffer—but the point is this: Lack of desire was not the issue.
One popular theory is that Clinton has changed since 2008. He has a better understanding of the pratfalls of the post-90s Twitter-driven news cycle, the thinking goes, and has learned to manage the new press climate with greater agility.
Maybe. Clinton may have been unprepared for the mini-soundbite landmines that carefully spliced YouTube videos made possible. And he certainly needed to adjust to the idea that you could no longer make a mess in the morning and clean it up in the afternoon (in time for the evening news).
But really, it's the circumstances of Clinton's task that are different this time around.
In 2008, his surrogate duties for Hillary came with several built-in challenges. For one thing, when you're stumping for your own wife, there's less moral authority behind your endorsement. Of course the man supports his wife. Mandatory endorsements have their limits.
Now, though, Clinton is going the extra mile to tell voters to trust the very man who ousted his wife. Even if it’s one Democratic president endorsing another, that still carries some moral weight. The well-known fact that Clinton and Obama are decidedly not buddies only reinforces the sense that the former president's motivations are substantial ones.
Similarly, back in 2008, there was the concern that a former president might overshadow the candidate actually on the ballot, rather than let her shine. As a result, he was held off the campaign trail for several months, and only deployed in the most strategic manner. He constantly had to take care not to pump up his own record too much, in case voters (or more often, reporters) decided he was diminishing the candidate, or acting out some unfulfilled wish that he were running in her place.
This time around, his candidate is the sitting president of the United States. There's no danger that Bill Clinton is going to overshadow Barack Obama. The former president may brag and opine essentially as he sees fit. He and Obama now have a shared interest in reminding voters how good things were in the last Democratic administration, before the tax-cutting, surplus-squandering Republicans took over the White House.
Another challenge in 2008 was the particular danger of a primary campaign. Surviving eight years of the other party trying to ruin you, as Clinton did throughout the 90s, is one thing. But during the Hillary-Obama battle, suddenly the Clintons found themselves with half of their own party—the very one it had led for a decade—opposed to them, sometimes pretty belligerently.
Clinton, Obama had argued, had failed to achieve transformative change the way Ronald Reagan had. He had gotten caught up in partisan battles stemming from baby boomer psychodramas that had handicapped Washington, by Obama’s telling.
And taking the critique to a new level, Obama’s staff disseminated to reporters a series of questions they suggested be asked about Clinton’s financial dealings. To say this bothered the former president—“a hit job,” he called it—would be an understatement.
Now? Clinton is once again the toast of his party, and savoring the role of savior. Clinton’s own party is squarely behind him. And Republicans, in an effort to paint Obama as relatively extreme and ineffective, have taken to hailing Clinton’s tenure as the good old days of cooperation and reform.
It’s a lot easier to be a smiling, level-headed surrogate when the whole world’s singing your praises. It’s also easier to keep an even keel when you don’t have as much personally riding on the outcome.
Clinton was in a near-constant state of rage in 2008 about what he perceived as the media's free ride for Obama, and correspondingly harsh treatment of his wife.
While the young senator could attack Hillary for engaging in old-style dirty politics, Obama, who had just as many pollsters and oppo researchers, was treated as the candidate of change. He was particularly incensed by what he deemed dishonest accounting of Hillary’s and Obama’s positions on the Iraq war, a belief he will no doubt take with him to the grave.
The coverage of the campaign—and especially his role in it—has been starkly different this time around. There's a reason for that.
Blake Zeff is a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and a former aide to Chuck Schumer and Eric Schneiderman.