Curiosity About Bill Clinton – Is He Running For 'First Dude'?

Former President Bill Clinton (AP)
Former President Bill Clinton (AP)

It's not fair to psychoanalyze people from a distance, even politicians. That said, let's get on with it...

Bill Clinton seems to be triangulating his self-interests — promoting his party’s nominee for president, promoting his wife, and promoting the Clinton Foundation. He's a master of triangulation, as we recall from his 1994-96 compromises with the GOP-controlled Congress, but recently he seems more like Mr. Transparent than Mr. Smooth.

Take, for example, his praise of Mitt Romney's "sterling" business record. That caused consternation in the Obama campaign since it undermined their effort to hold Romney accountable for the sins of Bain Capital. But Barack Obama is just one angle in Clinton’s triangle. “The Comeback Kid” was also thinking of his wife's possible candidacy in 2016; he wanted to assure future donors and moderate Democrats that the Clintons are still pro-business and pro-growth. And, the third angle in his triangle, he wanted to appeal to corporate interests that help fund the Clinton Foundation, his global nonprofit.

Bill Clinton seemed to undermine Obama’s position again when he said on CNBC that “there’s a recession” and he favored extension of all Bush tax cuts. He backed off his statement later, saying he had been confused about the timeline of the tax cuts, but the damage was done. He was already being quoted by GOP congressional leaders.

The same thing happened at a fundraiser with Obama. Clinton told the audience, “I care about the long-term debt of the country a lot. Remember me, I’m the only guy that gave you four surplus budgets out of the eight I sent.” Ouch! Obama must have thought, “Why does he hate me?” But Bill was thinking of his legacy, Hillary, the Clinton Foundation — not the president.

Bill Clinton isn’t the only Democrat ad-libbing instead of using the Obama script. Newark’s Mayor, Cory Booker, kicked off a controversy on “Meet the Press” on May 20, when he said the attacks on Romney’s business record were “nauseating” and made him “very uncomfortable.” Now the New York Post reports that Booker is out of the running for a possible Cabinet post in a second Obama term:

He’s dead to us,’ one ranking administration official said of the prevailing feelings at the White House and Obama headquarters in Chicago.

An even more candid Democrat is Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania. In plugging his new book, “A Nation of Wusses,” he says the president should have crafted his own health insurance and economic stimulus programs instead of letting Democratic congressional leaders do it. And he’s equally outspoken in supporting Hillary for 2016. He writes in his book, "She is bone-tired — the job of secretary of state is far more grueling than that of the president, with the nonstop traveling, the constant jet lag, and the odd-hours phone calls to accommodate foreign officials' schedules. Still I believe that when she gets some rest and has a chance to reflect on what she wants, the challenges facing the country will be too great for her to resist and she will change her mind."

Nostalgia for the Clintons is growing. But disillusionment with Obama grew after he merely tweeted his support of Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate for governor in Wisconsin, rather than campaigning for him, like Bill Clinton. Union activists recall the 2007 Obama who spoke at a rally in Spartansburg, S.C.:

Understand this: If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain, when I'm in the White House, I'll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I'll walk on that picket line with you, as president of the United States of America. Because workers deserve to know that someone's standing in their corner.

Apparently he meant, tweeting in the corner.

The Democratic loss in the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election is dismissed by the Obama campaign as insignificant because he didn’t campaign there. That seems like whistling past the graveyard since Wisconsin is moving back into the swing state column. Regardless, the Clintons must think the Wisconsin outcome is a wake-up call to Democrats for 2016 — proof that Obama liberalism is failing and the party needs to move back to the Clintonian middle. It may be debatable, but surely that’s the argument they are making privately with Democratic allies.

Money also talks. With the Romney team out-raising the Obama team in May, Bill Clinton, Cory Booker and Ed Rendell feel emboldened in saying that the Democratic establishment should not sound so anti-business.

But what is Hillary thinking? Perhaps she’s amused by her husband’s one-man improv show. She knows he loves playing strategist and upstaging Obama. But, as a loyal team player in the administration, does she worry that he might make future statements that are more damaging? After a Romney-Obama debate, might Bill say, “Romney gave a sterling performance, but Obama was good too”? Or if the Supreme Court strikes down ObamaCare, will Bill say, “Clearly it was a mistake for the president to make this his top priority instead of the economy, but he had good intentions. And, in retrospect, he should have managed the writing of this legislation himself, instead of letting Congress do it.”

There will always be “loose cannons” in any presidential campaign, and Romney will have surrogates going rogue, as well. It’s just a part of politics — politicians are not robots, even though campaign managers may try to program them. But Bill Clinton, as a popular former president, as husband of the 2016 Democratic frontrunner, as a global figure, as a still-ambitious political leader, is truly unique.

In the history of loose cannons, Bill Clinton might be the loosest with the most firepower since Teddy Roosevelt. After serving as president, Roosevelt broke with his GOP ally and handpicked successor, President William Howard Taft, over policy and personal issues. Teddy came out of retirement in 1912 and formed the Progressive Party, popularly known as the “Bull Moose Party,” and ran for president, unsuccessfully, against Taft and Woodrow Wilson.

A constitutional amendment prohibits a third presidential term for Clinton, but nothing prevents him from thinking about becoming the nation’s first First Dude. There may be only one person who stands in the way of his dream: she’s busy now, serving as Secretary of State.

This program aired on June 8, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Todd Domke

Todd Domke Republican Political Analyst
Todd Domke is a Republican political analyst for WBUR.



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