Author Daniel Halper
This time around, Bill Clinton, still one of the most persuasive voices in the Democratic Party, is almost an after-thought in Hillary’s pursuit of his old job. He’s almost never at her side – and rarely using his rhetorical skills to bolster his wife’s candidacy. In other words, the former president has been able to adopt the persona of submissive spouse. At least for now.
Sign up for The Daily 202, The Washington Post’s new political tipsheet
In 2008, Hillary Clinton ran as the rightful heir to the Democratic nomination. This time, against lesser competition, she’s trying to put her head down and earn the support of her party before moving on to the general election.
And now, the Clintons are so eager to move back into the White House that they’re more than glad to repudiate specific policies that they happily – and even eagerly – adopted in the past. Including prison and justice reform, the Defense of Marriage Act (and gay rights writ large), financial regulations and, well, it seems like basically every other issue that’s been convenient for them to evolve on.
Even the former president has been embarrassing himself with his rejection of some of the most bipartisan elements of his legacy, such as his own criminal justice laws, which he campaigned on and even touted as an accomplishment in his memoir My Life and which put 100,000 more police officers on the street.
But police – and mandatory prison sentences – are no longer popular among liberal elites. And the Clintons appear willing to do anything to return to their good graces. “I signed a bill that made the problem worse. And I want to admit it,” Clinton recently told[buzzfeed.com] an NAACP crowd. “Most of these people are in prison under state law, but the federal law set a trend. … And that was overdone. We were wrong about that. That percentage of it, we were wrong about.”
There’s little doubt Hillary Clinton now agrees with her husband on criminal justice issues—or, more accurately, that his latest denunciation of his past policy is meant to better position Hillary Clinton with elite conventional wisdom. And even less doubt that this flip-flop isn’t a sign of conversion but an acknowledgement that the old Clinton position does not poll well among the people Hillary Clinton needs to vote for her.
But don’t believe the bluster.
The truth is, the Clintons never really change. Their motives, their ambitions and their tactics remain practically unchanged over the course of their careers. And so far, it’s worked for them. They go up, they go down. They are popular, then hated, and then popular again. “The highs are as high as the lows are low, and it’s a dangerous place to live in my opinion,” an aide once told me in an interview.
My book, Clinton, Inc.: The Audacious Rebuilding of a Political Machine, chronicles the Clintons’ comeback. And it was a low place they came back from indeed. They famously left the White House in a cloud of disgrace and scandal. Bill Clinton was personally depressed after moving out. And Hillary started anew as the junior senator from the state of New York. Both had been publicly humiliated (in different ways) in the president’s intern sex scandal – which, in fact, was just one of many public embarrassments for the first family during Clinton’s eight-year tenure as leader of the free world.
The former president was able to remake his name and reputation largely by hard work and perseverance, starting a do-gooder organization and personally reaching out to some of his staunchest critics to mend relations. The former first lady put her head down as senator, gaining respect from her uncertain colleagues, before trying and failing in her own presidential race in 2008. Afterward, she didn’t return to the Senate to sulk or hold a public grudge against her fellow Democrats who so painfully denied her from achieving her lifetime ambition. Instead, she, for the most part, loyally served her political nemesis and slowly earned back trust and grudging respect from her fellow partisans.
Now, together, they are threatening what would be a remarkable and historic return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s an unparalleled story, to be sure. And at its best, the comeback helps explain how politics in America works (or doesn’t work) today.
Living dangerously has been one of the keys to the Clintons’ great political success over the years. It has allowed them to take chances people more tepid passed on. It helped propel their improbable comeback. Whether it will send them back to the White House remains to be seen. But having now spent years researching and writing about Bill and Hillary Clinton, I’m sure about at least this: I wouldn’t bet against them.
Daniel Halper is the online editor of The Weekly Standard. Daniel is the New York Times bestselling author of Clinton, Inc.: The Audacious Rebuilding of a Political Machine and has appeared on the Fox News Channel, Fox Business, MSNBC, and C-SPAN.