Back when Bill Clinton was merely an Arkansas governor who wanted to be president, he wanted the country to know that the smart lawyer he married was part of a package deal. Electing Clinton was, Americans were told, a “two-for-one” deal because Hillary Clinton would be an important part of his administration. The line was designed to appeal to female voters eager to embrace a new model of a First Lady as policy maven rather than hostess. In the end, Hillary’s stint as the Clinton administration’s health care czar ended in disaster as her proposal was sunk by critics on substance as well as the secretive nature of the way she operated. But 24 years later the two-for-one deal is back although the roles are reversed. Now it is candidate Hillary who is touting her spouse as a bonus for voters. As the New York Times reported from a Clinton campaign stop in Kentucky:
Hillary Clinton already has an assignment for her husband, Bill Clinton, if they return to the White House next year. The former president, Mrs. Clinton told voters on Sunday, will be “in charge of revitalizing the economy.”
“Because, you know, he knows how to do it,” she said. “Especially in places like coal country and inner-cities and other parts of our country that have really been left out.”
Does this make any sense? In its favor, Bill Clinton is still a very popular figure. Moreover, the 90s interlude between the Cold War and 9/11, during which he governed, is now seen by a lot of Americans as a lost golden age when compared to the subsequent years of war and economic travail. But the Clinton camp’s belief that merely invoking the name of the 42nd president will work to bolster Hillary’s credentials is an assumption that fails to take into account a number of factors. Though Hillary might be well advised to listen to her more politically talented spouse, the talk of Bill as her economic czar brings with it as many problems as it does solutions. Far from energizing Democrats, the prospect of two-for-one, part two will discourage her party’s liberal base and other voters who aren’t interested in recycled ideas in this year of political revolt while also opening her up to more personal criticism by Donald Trump.
Let’s concede that nostalgia for the economy of the 1990s is somewhat understandable. It was the product of the end of the Cold War and the unique juxtaposition of a centrist Democrat in the White House and a new Republican Congressional majority determined to rein in liberal excesses. Bill Clinton’s willingness to work with the GOP produced landmark legislation on welfare reform and crime as well as a balanced budget. Not all of the credit belongs to Clinton, but he does deserve kudos for being willing to work with Republicans as he admitted that the “era of big government is over.” That doesn’t make Clinton an economic genius but, when compared to the woes of the George W. Bush administration that had to deal with the 2008 economic downturn and an Obama administration that has presided over the most anemic recovery in modern American history, it’s no surprise that his stock has gone up in recent years.
What the Clinton camp is forgetting is that other than her own lack of retail talent as a presidential candidate, Hillary’s main liability is the perception that she is a recycled candidate from an earlier era. There’s little that is fresh or new about a woman who has been a leading figure in American politics since that first two-for-one campaign. Promising a Bill Clinton comeback as a policymaker only highlights that problem.
But there are two other far more serious factors that render this announcement a political liability.
The first is that she forgets just how unpopular Bill Clinton’s policies are among the liberal base of the Democratic Party. If the 1990s was an era of prosperity, it is due entirely to the free market and free trade principles Hillary’s husband pursued in cooperation with congressional Republicans. But it is opposition to those ideas that have fueled an unexpectedly potent insurgency against her candidacy from an otherwise unlikely 74-year-old socialist challenger. Clinton has had to tack hard to her left in order to fend off Bernie Sanders in a way that caused her to not only disavow her husband’s policies but also her own record of support for free trade.
This contradiction is no mere detail. Clinton’s only path to victory involves an Election Day turnout of liberals, minorities and young voters that have cheered Sanders’ message. Pundits assume that revulsion against the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency will generate the kind of massive voter turnout that elected and re-elected Barack Obama. But that factor can only be undermined by Hillary’s embrace of a man that embodies a lot of what the political left hates about this country.
But there is one more problem with Hillary essentially promoting the prospect of a two-person presidency: the Trump factor.
Trump is deep under water with female voters who perceive his insults and treatment of women as proof of his chauvinism. Not all of these charges are going to stick as the New York Times less than successful takedown of Trump’s record with women showed yesterday. But it remains an important talking point for the Clintons. Trump’s only answer is the same he uses under any and all other circumstances: he attacks. Those attacks will be centered on Bill Clinton’s odious conduct toward women. The Clinton camp has replied, with some justice, that Hillary Clinton should be judged on her own merits and not as an appendage of her brilliant but wayward husband. But by positioning Bill as a co-president who will run the economy while Hillary presumably goes back to mismanaging foreign policy, she is making it easier for Trump’s no-holds-barred approach to undermine that defense. If Bill really will run the economy, then his record is fair game.
The Clinton camp is clearly uncertain as to what the best strategy for countering Trump might be. Letting him sink himself while Clinton presents a reasonable and responsible alternative to a cult of personality might be the smartest approach. But a new two-for-one deal is not likely to help her with Democrats or Republicans and has the added problem of making it easier for Trump to talk about Monica Lewinsky. If that’s Hillary’s idea of winning the news cycle, she is mistaken.