One of the saddest outcomes of the scorched earth Hillary Clinton for President campaign has been the impact it has had on her husband, former President Bill Clinton. For years, Clinton occupied rarefied air inside Democratic circles — a president who remained popular, even through impeachment, and who became even more so after he left office. Bill Clinton was so beloved by Black Democrats (even was benighted “the first Black president for a time,) he could waltz into any Black church, even into the funeral for the late Coretta Scott King, and chastise the crowd for being discourteous to George Bush.
Clinton’s presidency was looked upon, by all but the most liberal Democrats, as a good time in America — imperfect, and certainly not free of scandal — but also full of opportunity and possibility, fueled by the explosion of the Internet, a strong and growing economy, and, say it with me, “22 million new jobs.” It was good to be Bill.
Now, in part by his own heavy hand (in South Carolina), and as his wife’s burning ambition, which failed to make her the Democratic nominee, has nonetheless led the mainstream media to crown her the new “feminist hero” — Bill Clinton is shrinking. The all-out war to defeat Barack Obama took him from rock star ex-president to red-faced husband almost overnight, and from philanthropic juggernaut to common political attack dog. Worse, his efforts, and those of the team he bequeathed on Hillary (Mark Penn, Terry McAuliffe, Harold Ickes and others,) bloodied Obama but ultimately failed, leaving most of the stains on Bill. Because while all Hillary lost was the nomination, Bill Clinton lost something that it turns out, seems to have meant much more to him — he lost the love.
The shrinking of the president has been a sad spectacle for those of us who supported him, even during the dark days of impeachment, and who continued to look upon “Big Bill” with favor: he was the white guy with the “Black passport” — they guy who works in Harlem — someone so likable, even women would give him a pass to on “the Monica thing.”
For black America, the fall has been especially steep. His once bulletproof approval ratings with African-Americans have now dropped so much, they have helped pull his overall approval rating among Democrats into the negative for the first time, according a March NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Bill’s negative rating in the current survey: 45 percent. His positive number: 42.
Clinton’s response to the decline has been to get mad. According to press reports, he’s mad at Barack Obama, whose campaign he is sure “slimed him,” and falsely tagged him and his wife as racists. He’s mad at the winning Democratic campaign which he apparently believes, was run largely as a repudiation of his eight years in office. Tom Edsall of the Huffington Post writes:
Some say Bill Clinton not only wants Obama to reach out to him, but to also promise to lift the cloud of alleged racism — an accusation that continues to eat at the man once dubbed the nation’s “first black president.” Clinton, these folks suggest, wants Obama to publicly exonerate him of the charge that he played the race card in the primaries.
Beyond that, some associates say, Bill Clinton wants Obama to reach out to him as a mentor, a guide who can lead Obama through the labyrinth of a tough presidential election. “Bill wants to be honored, to return to the role of Democratic elder statesman, and get rid of this image of him as a pol willing to do anything to win,” said one associate.
“He is still bruised from the trail, really hurt about the racist charges leveled against him, and convinced the Obama campaign fomented it,” said another source familiar with the former president’s attitude. “What he would really like is for Obama to apologize, but on one level he knows that is never going to happen,” a third source said.
But for all the blame game, the people Bill Clinton may, secretly, be most angry at, should be himself, his wife, and his wife’s campaign. After all, it was the former president who so damaged himself by appearing to dismiss Obama’s South Carolina primary win with the nonsequitor, “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ’84 and ’88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here.”
It was Hillary who chose to shade the fact that she knows darned well that Obama, her Senate colleague, is no Muslim, Hillary who declared that the “hard working, white voters” of West Virginia were in her pocket, and Hillary who made that horrifying reference about the assassination of RFK in explaining why she was staying in the race until June.
It was Bill Clinton’s political attack dogs, on loan to Hillary, who implemented the now notorious “kitchen sink” strategy against Obama, a man more similar to the Bill Clinton of 1992 (“the man from Hope,” no less,) than Bill might want to admit. And it was Howard Wolfson and company’s bully-boy tactics with the press that ramped up the adversarial relationship the president and his family remembered all too well from the 90s. And it was Clinton supporters who raised the ugly specter of race as a reason to oppose Obama’s candidacy, or to diminish it, from Geraldine Ferraro to the 2 in 10 Democratic voters in some primary states who stated openly that they would not vote for a black candidate, to Harriet Christian, the ignorant woman fron New York who derided Obama as an affirmative action hire, or an “inadequate black man.”
It wouldn’t be surprising, given all of this, that the Obama camp might be reluctant to give Bill Clinton the public embrace he seems to crave (and I have no reporting to suggest that such reluctance exists.) But the embrace will come anyway, mark my words. There is too much at stake for the Obama team to leave even a single vote on the table, and bringing Clinton supporters into the fold will prove to be a higher priority than nursing resentments against the former first lady, much less the lone two-term Democratic president in many of our lifetimes.
So Bill will get his rehab, probably in the form of a “Clinton night” during the Denver convention, and strategic appearances with Obama, at which the latter pours on the praise for the 1990s, and publicly seeks Clinton’s council (maybe even accompanying him to a black church, or to the “Tom Joyner Morning Show,” where both men have a friend in the host.) Still, many black voters I’ve talked to are hard-pressed to forgive, at least for now. And during the campaign, Bill Clinton’s role will likely be limited to wooing rural and southern white voters — the ones he and Hillary bonded with during the campaign. The real turnaround for Bill Clinton will come after the election, when he goes back to the good works that he has been doing through his Clinton Global Initiative; when his focus is off politics, and back on his impressive humanitarian projects and outreach to the world.
The good news for the Clintons is that if Obama wins the White House in November, all will be forgiven (except Bob Johnson — he’s good and done.) Things could get more complicated if Obama falls short in November, and his supporters blame the bruising primary, or some outgrowth of it that McCain or the GOP figure out how to successfully exploit. In that case, we could see a real fracture in the Democratic Party, which unfortunately, will be generational, income based, and and least partly down to race.
UPDATE: Bill Clinton says Barack can “kiss his ass???” … Seriously???