Big Dog is Back
and Obama just might need him by Dick Polman, Inquirer National Political Columnist
I meant to straighten out this liar
but there just wasn't enough time.
Bill Clinton has long contradicted F. Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that "there are no second acts in American lives."
By now, he's probably on his 12th.
First he was the amiable rogue governor (nicknamed "Elvis") who liked Big Macs and Gennifer Flowers,
then he was the Comeback Kid, the Great Empathizer, the liberal novice-in-chief, the born-again centrist,
the sinner-in-chief, the word parser, the survivor, the pariah, the global statesman, the Hillary fighter who
seemed to be off his meds . . . and now, another act: Democratic surrogate-in-chief on the '10 campaign trail.
Yes, Elvis is back in the building, back in the party's good graces after those divisive '08 intramurals,
and the ironies are thicker than the August air.
As evidenced last week in Pennsylvania, where he stumped for Senate aspirant Joe Sestak and a swing-district
House candidate, and as evidenced in appearances from Maine to Florida, Clinton is lending his rhetorical talents
to the Obama team in the hopes of salvaging the new president's imperiled congressional majorities. He's warning,
of course, that a Republican takeover would return us to the bad old days of Bush, but his broader aim is to
hark back to the relative innocence of the peaceful, prosperous, pre-Bush 1990s - back when he was president,
when "20 million jobs" were being created, when the budget was in the black.
The mind reels. Confident that he has weathered the previous eras of Clinton fatigue, Clinton in 2010 is essentially
trying to save Obama's majorities by stoking Clinton nostalgia. Which is fascinating, given that Obama, the intended
beneficiary, spent so much of 2008 dumping all over the Clinton presidency and insinuating that Clinton's tenure
was not worthy of nostalgia.
Here was Obama, in winter '08: "Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon
did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not." Here was Obama, several months later: "For far too long, through
both Democratic and Republican administrations, the system has been rigged against everyday Americans by the
lobbyists that Wall Street uses to get its way." Moreover, small-town jobs "have been gone now for 25 years,
and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration and the Bush administration."
Those passages might strike the typical layman as mild, but in political terms, Obama might just as well have
cracked a beer bottle over Bubba's head. He was essentially suggesting that Clinton in some respects was
no better than Nixon or Bush, that Clinton had sucked up to the special interests and betrayed working folks
as badly as any Republican. Obviously, Clinton didn't like being critiqued that way by someone he viewed as
an interloper, which helps explain why he soon dissed Obama as a Jesse Jackson niche candidate and derided
Obama's anti-Iraq record as a "fairy tale."
But that was then. Today the Obama camp is happy to let Clinton repair and burnish his reputation however
he sees fit. If Clinton wants to boast about 20 million new jobs, that's fine - even though a decent case can
be made (economists and historians have made it to me) that Clinton embraced fiscal responsibility in part
because he was forced to cut deals with a Republican Congress and that he basically let the good times roll
by riding a jobs boom prompted by the computer revolution. If Clinton's nostalgia tour can somehow rouse
Democratic voters from their current torpor - well, that's fine, too, because, after all, nothing else seems to
be working. And he seems welcome everywhere.
One decade ago, Clinton was thought to be so damaged by the impeachment crisis that the Al Gore campaign
wanted him to stump only in places populated by his most loyal followers (namely, African Americans);
among culturally conservative Democrats scandalized by his having sex with an intern, he was thought to
be poison. But he cleared the latter hurdle during the '08 primaries, when Hillary, with his help, ran strong
in the white, small-town enclaves. In the spring, he stumped in central Pennsylvania for the Democrat who
wound up winning the late John Murtha's seat; the Republicans should have won that race, and Clinton
deserved some credit for foiling them.
Clinton today is indeed more welcome than Obama in rural, white swing districts - buoyed, no doubt,
by the fact that ex-presidents often gain popularity simply because they don't have to make the unpopular
decisions anymore. (He's ranked higher than Obama in the latest Gallup poll.) And one particular American
disease - amnesia - helps Clinton as well. Nobody seems to remember, for instance, that he signed a string
of cheesy pardons as his tenure waned, notably pardoning a convicted criminal, investor Marc Rich,
whose wife had donated lavishly to the future Clinton library.
But even though Clinton can apparently stump anywhere today, he has been tweaking the White House in
his own inimitable way. He has been mainly campaigning for Democrats who had endorsed his wife's
presidential bid, and even though Obama backed Sen. Michael Bennet in Colorado's divisive Democratic
primary, Clinton endorsed challenger Andrew Romanoff. Obama's man won that primary, which goes
to show that sometimes the Big Dog's bark is worse than his bite.
The thing is, these guys are alike in several key respects. Both launched their presidencies with great ambition,
and with Democrats in control of both congressional chambers. Both suffered big setbacks in their rookie seasons;
both inspired feverish Republican opposition. And, unless the conventional wisdom is egregiously wrong,
Obama's party will cede control of Congress in November, just as Clinton was jolted in 1994.
Clinton survived as president by tacking to the center and cutting deals with the GOP. Obama might have to
follow suit, assuming that the next crop of Republicans has any interest in dealing. Obama won the '08
Democratic nod in part by minimizing the Clinton legacy, but he may be forced by circumstances to plumb
that legacy for tips on how to write his crucial second act. He could do worse.