Bill Clinton+Hillary Clinton

Politics – Hillary Clinton’s biggest asset is also her greatest potential liability.

September 25, 2014

Hillary Clinton’s campaign-in-waiting has a priceless asset, a super weapon strong enough to strike fear in her most determined rival. It also has a dangerous liability, a burden able to drag her into dead ends and drive her to distraction. It’s Clinton’s peculiar fate that both just happen to be her husband.

As Clinton ponders her second run for the White House, many variables are in play, from her age to her health to her economic platform to her status as a soon-to-be grandmother. But an unspoken issue that floats above all others—and that keeps some very smart Democrats awake nights—is how to keep Bill in a box.

Hillary’s predicament was on display this week at the 10th annual session of the Clinton Global Initiative, the philanthropic clearinghouse founded by the 42nd president, who frequently shared the stage with his wife. Seth Meyers emceed the conference’s opening dinner in New York, announcing, “President Clinton is here tonight give it up and so is Bill…”

Bill Clinton remains the Democratic Party’s peerless political brand, and whatever the public’s occasional ambivalence about his flaws, he is also a superb “secretary of explaining stuff,” as no less a cool-eyed critic than Barack Obama acknowledged in 2012. Any Democratic candidate for the presidency would be foolish not to bask in his glow.

But the sheer size of Clinton’s personality and reputation poses special problems for his wife’s ambitions—and this is true whether or not he veers angrily off-message, as he sometimes did during her embattled 2008 campaign, to the chagrin of Hillary’s twitchy campaign advisers and the delight of Obama’s team.

“It’s a very thorny problem for her, I think, and not because he’s without incredible gifts and savvy and political judgment, but because that stuff isn’t really transferable,” said Eli Attie, who as a speechwriter and adviser to Al Gore lived through Gore’s fretful ambivalence about how to deal with Clinton in his own presidential campaign in 2000. “In fact, it sets up an impossible and unfavorable comparison.”

Does it matter? The Clintons have been dealing with the political ramifications of their unusual marital and professional partnership for more than 30 years, and have weathered controversy over everything from her initial decision not to use his last name when he was governor of Arkansas to his early assertion in the 1992 presidential that voters could “buy one, get one free” by choosing him and his talented wife.

Secretary Clinton’s dilemma now is a twist on that same formulation. By electing her, voters would presumably also get the politically savviest, most substantively schooled first spouse in American history. But would they also get the famously undisciplined figure whose global speaking gigs and international business and philanthropic interests already had to be reined in—and in some cases curtailed—during her tenure as secretary of state? Would they be getting the man who almost caused a diplomatic incident on a rope line in Iowa 10 days ago, when a C-SPAN camera caught him agreeing with an attendee at Sen. Tom Harkin’s Steak Fry that Benjamin Netanyahu was “not the guy” to make peace with the Palestinians?

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