Death of a statesman

Bill Clinton’s role in the campaign is hurting everyone involved, including the former president.

Presidential primaries tend to be nasty affairs. When candidates share positions on most major issues (as candidates of the same party often do), their campaigns instead have to find other ways to stand out and bring down the opposition. This year’s election cycle has added a new twist, however: the injection of a former president into the fray. And while President Bill Clinton left office as a popular two-term chief executive, his presence in the democratic campaign over the last few weeks has done no good for anyone, himself included.

America has developed a strange tradition over the years: former presidents are not “supposed” to openly advocate politically. Recall, for example, the criticism leveled at President Jimmy Carter for calling the Israel/Palestine situation “apartheid” in a book title. If Bill Clinton has done one positive thing during the past few months, it is ending this bizarre status quo. Former presidents clearly have a powerful public profile, and are more than welcome to use it as they see fit. Clinton obviously decided to campaign actively for wife Hillary’s presidential bid, and that is understandable. A former president able to vouch for a candidate’s competence gives a campaign a huge boost. Instead of using his pulpit to advocate for Hillary, however, Bill often has become the Clinton campaign’s attack dog. He’s hurting his wife’s campaign, his party’s electoral chances, and his own legacy as the face of the Democratic Party.

Bill Clinton spent the days leading up to last Saturday’s caucus in Nevada openly advocating for voter suppression – surely a strange position for any politician to take, let alone one who functions as the de facto head of progressive politics in this country. The Nevada Democratic Party was planning to set up nine extra caucus sites on the Las Vegas strip, in order to give workers in hotels and casinos the chance to participate in the time-consuming caucus process. The state party came to this agreement months in advance, and the plan met with little resistance; that is, until Barack Obama received a major endorsement from the Culinary Worker’s Union (which represents many casino and hotel workers). Suddenly the teacher’s union (led by several major Clinton supporters) filed suit, alleging the new voting plan violated election guidelines.

A federal judge rightly allowed the new voting plan to continue, but not before President Clinton started angrily defending the lawsuit. Instead of avoiding comment like most of the Clinton campaign, Bill fought back. When asked about the lawsuit by a reporter, Clinton responded that “you [the reporter] think the culinary workers’ vote should be easier” than others’ and also that the new caucus sites made the culinary workers’ votes worth “five times more” than the rest of the state. The first part of that comment was simply an absurd and undemocratic argument (voting that is Ö too easy?), and the second part just wasn’t true.

Bill appears to have pulled the “five times more” number out of thin air – while that was technically possible, that kind of impact would have required a strange and completely unlikely voting pattern. More disturbing is that we got to see a former president argue that a state was making voting too easy, all because those new voters might not prefer his chosen candidate. (In fact, Hillary won seven of the nine new caucus sites anyway.) Fighting against easy voting sounds like something from the Vladimir Putin playbook, not something a former U.S. president would say. These tactics damage the entire Clinton campaign as it trumpets Hillary’s progressive background.

Bill’s attacks on Obama have been just as strange and just as unproductive. Obama is a candidate with many flaws that the Clinton campaign can exploit – a health care plan that doesn’t cover everyone, an overly optimistic view of how the machinery of Washington works, an uncomfortably friendly relationship with the coal industry. Instead, Clinton has spent time openly demeaning Obama’s entire campaign. When discussing Obama’s long-time opposition to the Iraq war, Clinton mockingly called it a “fairy tale.” A few weeks earlier, he claimed that people backing Obama were irresponsibly “roll[ing] the dice.” Not only are those kinds of remarks unbecoming to a former president, they are unnecessarily cheap politics. Imagine if Bill Clinton spent his time criticizing Obama’s health care plan for not requiring all citizens to have health insurance. After all, Clinton has plenty of history with the issue of health care, and nearly all experts agree that a mandate requiring health insurance is the only realistic way to achieve universal health care in this country. Instead, Clinton has alternated between angry and condescending. Obviously, this could damage his entire Democratic Party if Obama manages to win the nomination: his opponent could simply air ads showing a prominent Democrat calling Obama a risky dice roll.

But there are more immediate damages to Clinton’s party. So far, Democrats have been enjoying record turnout in the primaries because of the enthusiasm this slate of candidates bring. Maintaining that enthusiasm will be important for any Democrat over the next ten months, and Bill Clinton’s unnecessary dirty politics threaten to undermine the excitement. Hillary can win without resorting to smears.

Perhaps most disappointingly, the former president is reducing himself to political hit-man just when he was beginning to have such a positive worldwide effect. He has authored a book about the power of private charity, and his Clinton Foundation has been doing major work fighting AIDS, global warming and poverty around the planet. He’s been able to do so in large part because of his global role as a sort of elder statesman. Working in the private world has allowed Clinton to pool massive amounts of private donations and to target those funds where they can do so much good. Indeed, his old wingman Al Gore has shown what a prominent politician can accomplish when embracing advocacy outside of government office. For a time it looked like Clinton would follow suit and maintain a largely above-the-fray stance, but unfortunately the last month has proved otherwise.

Not too long ago, Clinton was telling a sold-out University crowd about “the power of ordinary people to do public good.” Now, sadly, he seems to be reminding us that old politicians have the power to let us down.

John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]

Sources: 18bill.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=nevada+caucus+ lawsuit&st=nyt&oref=slogin feisty-bill-clinton-defends-nevada-lawsuit/ dyn/content/article/2007/01/09/AR2007010901503.html