Bill Clinton is once again inserting himself into a presidential election, and just as with his wife four years ago, his performance as a surrogate for President Obama has been both dazzling and damning — all within a few days.
Clinton, as he repeatedly displayed during his time as president and in his current life as a prominent Democratic surrogate, has the ability to be do what basically nobody else can on the stump: take complex issues and frame them in simple ways that sway persuadable voters to his side.
But, as he also repeatedly displayed during his time in the White House, Clinton also can veer badly off message — as he has done by inexplicably stepping on Obama’s core message twice in the last few days.
First, Clinton said Mitt Romney enjoyed a “sterling business career” even as the Obama campaign was suggesting Romney’s work in the private sector didn’t prepare him for the presidency. Then, Clinton suggested that he supports a temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts at a time when Obama has spent months appealing to middle class voters by calling for an end to those same tax cuts.
In both cases, Clinton’s office was quick to clarify and make clear that the former president isn’t really at odds with the current president’s message.
But even if you accept those explanations, it’s also quite clear that Clinton was free-lancing to a degree that was unhelpful to the Obama campaign.
So what’s happening here?
There’s no question that Clinton is one of the smartest political minds in the game. It’s understandable when Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D), a relative newbie on the national circuit, steps on the Obama team’s message. When Clinton does it, it’s harder to dismiss it as the former president — a gifted communicator if there ever was one — having misspoken or been misunderstood.
But it’s also not the first time that the president has ventured into dangerous surrogate territory.
During the 2008 campaign, Clinton was at times a liability for his wife, earning a reputation for red-faced rants. He angrily criticized Obama’s anti-war stance as “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen,” pointedly accused a local TV news reporter of asking a leading question, and diminished Obama’s win in South Carolina by comparing it to Jesse Jackson’s wins in the state in the 1980s. Clinton’s time in South Carolina, in particular, led many to question whether his wife would have been better off if the former president were on a golf course rather than the campaign trail.
But while those episodes may have been nuisances for Hillary’s campaign to deal with, Bill Clinton’s words in recent days have actually sidetracked Obama’s overall message. Romney’s private equity career and Obama’s the-rich-should-pay-their-fair-share policy are central to Obamaworld’s strategy this November. In fact, it’s hard to think of two things that are more central right now to Obama’s winning calculus than defining Romney’s business career and the need for economic fairness on the incumbent’s preferred terms.
If Clinton couldn’t stay on-message on those two core messages, can (or will) he over the next five months?
In the end, Clinton’s tendency to stray off-message is part and parcel to the success of his political brand. When a politician doesn’t speak in talking points, it makes him or her more genuine and popular, but it also makes him or her more susceptible to fouling things up. But Obama’s campaign has had to deal plenty with that unhelpful side effect.
It will be interesting to see how much the Obama campaign rolls out Clinton in the weeks and months to come. But even if they don’t, it’s not easy to rein in a former president, and if Clinton wants to be in the news, he’s going to be in the news.
Which could either be great for Obama, or nerve-wracking for the President and his team. If past is prologue as it relates to Clinton, it will be a little bit of both.