November 16, 2013
More Fun With Bill & Hill
By FRANK BRUNI
BEFORE President Obama administered his fix to the Affordable Care Act last week and even before it was clear that he was leaning that way, Bill Clinton piped up, opining that Obama should honor his claim that Americans with insurance they liked could keep it. This advice wasn’t exactly solicited. And inasmuch as it gave detractors of Obama and Obamacare a fresh cudgel, it wasn’t terribly helpful, either.
But Bill will be Bill. That’s one way to view his latest post-presidential intervention: as the impromptu utterance of a man whose mind is always racing, whose mouth is often running and who doesn’t mind the microphones and the spotlight. There was an opening for his perspective, an appetite. He filled it.
You can alternately view what he said as payback. He’s no doubt aware of a widely publicized nugget from the new book “Double Down: Game Change 2012,” which reports that Obama finds him a tad insufferable, the guest who overstays his welcome, and has said that he’s best savored “in doses.” So he gave Obama a dose all right. It was more vinegar than honey, with just the slightest trace of arsenic.
Or you can view what happened last week in grandly strategic and utterly gallant terms, which is where things really get interesting and which may be the most accurate appraisal of all. Clinton is looking to 2016, and he’s helping Hillary. It’s less dicey for him than for her to second-guess Obama, which could wind up being a prerequisite to succeeding him. His presidency at this particular moment looks more and more like one of those unlucky Florida homes perched unsuspectingly over a sinkhole. Soon only the top of the chimney will be visible.
And making sure that Obamacare does get fixed, and that a majority of Americans three years from now are at peace with it, could have as much bearing on Hillary’s ambitions as on Obama’s legacy. Voters won’t rush to elect a Democratic president if the health care reforms that the party promoted so assiduously go bust.
What an unusual political spectacle we have before us, and what an amazing one could be ahead.
For starters there’s Clinton himself, an ex-president in excelsis, his stride brisker, his footprint larger and his etiquette looser than those of other Oval Office alumni. He’s more ubiquitous, more loquacious, not just an “explainer in chief,” as he was called after his sprawling remarks at the 2012 Democratic convention, but a belittler in waiting, emitting so many words on so many fronts that a few are bound to sting. Last June he questioned Obama’s deference to public-opinion surveys that showed weak support for military intervention in Syria and said that a president who hesitates for such reasons risks looking like “a total fool.”
In his animation and expansiveness, he’s a sustained retort to Obama’s style. Obama right now is enduring the news-media ordeal of every president whose agenda has gone off-track, with each facet of his personality examined and tagged as the cause. He’s aloof, he’s cold, he’s a loner.
Clinton is the ever-present antonym of all of that, bringing Obama’s peculiarities and liabilities into relief. As I watched Obama’s stiff apology on Thursday — “I completely get how upsetting this can be for a lot of Americans,” he said, with a listlessness that suggested that he completely wanted to get far away from the podium — I couldn’t help imagining Clinton’s hypothetical performance in a similar spot and bind. He would have been lavish with empathy, promiscuous with it. He would have bled and he would have gushed.
In commenting on current events, he no longer has to be as restrained as he was during Obama’s first four years, when Hillary was the secretary of state. Bill, doing his own globe-trotting, could easily have said something to trip her up or bring her grief. To the astonishment of many Democrats well familiar with his past recklessness, he didn’t.
“It’s amazing to me that he caused her no problems,” one longtime Democratic political operative remarked to me last week. “That was a thoughtful, daily exercise in discipline.”
“He’s disciplined when he wants to be,” a Democratic strategist who has worked with him told me. This observation bolstered the theory that the Syria dig and last week’s Obamacare riff weren’t accidental, at least not entirely, and that Clinton’s comments about Obama can be read as those of Hillary’s proxy, establishing any necessary distance between what Obama is doing and how a different Democratic president — for example, her — might handle things.
“You can’t over-interpret it,” the strategist cautioned, saying that even a couple as conniving as the Clintons can’t and don’t “sit there at the chessboard every day.”
But Hillary’s possible candidacy is always “in his subconscious,” the strategist added, referring to Bill. “He’s always aware that he’s got this project, which is getting her elected president if that’s what she wants.”
He was an effective, tireless cheerleader for Obama during the 2012 campaign, an effort in line with what he surely deemed best for the country. But it may have been best for Hillary in 2016, too. Had Obama lost, the Democratic nominee in the coming presidential election would be facing a Republican incumbent. Besides, Bill deftly kindled Clinton nostalgia, reminding people of a more prosperous era.
But the calculus for him over the coming years is much, much more complicated. If Obama doesn’t recover, if there are more fumbles and if Hillary formally decides that she’d like to carry the ball next, Bill’s best approach may be cheerleading mingled with fault finding, and the current president may be faced with a former president whose tangle of motives is unlike any that other former presidents possessed.
At the same time, Bill can’t be too vocal, too vivid. Exposure has risks, evident in his divisive remarks about the South Carolina primary that Hillary lost to Obama in 2008.
And in precisely the way that he sometimes makes Obama seem tepid, he could outshine Hillary, inadvertently or not. A friend of mine who went to a public event of hers last week was blown away by how not blown away he was. Amid all of the Hillary hullabaloo, he’d forgotten that she’s no dynamo on the stump. Many Democrats overlook this, but not the ones whispering sweet encouragements in Elizabeth Warren’s ear. Part of what they see in Warren — and part of what they believe could make her a spoiler — is a sizzle that doesn’t come as naturally to Hillary.
Back to Bill. To pay his sizable debt to his wife, to pave his own return to the White House, he’d have to pull off a balancing act like none in the history of helpmeets. You have to hand it to the Clintons. Never a dull moment.