Bill Clinton was back in the headlines last week, and in a big way.
His emergence was ostensibly timed to promote his Clinton Global Initiative, a consortium of philanthropists dedicated to fighting some of the Third World’s uglier social ills that held its annual conference in Manhattan.
But watching Mr. Clinton make the media rounds called to mind one of his famously rambling stump speeches. Sure, Bill projects purposeful, if not righteous, wonkishness—stopping by Jon Stewart’s Daily Show to talk about a doctor who’s set up a clearinghouse for clean medical supplies for impoverished nations, or telling Tim Russert on Meet the Press about a private-sector initiative that could dissuade Afghan farmers from growing poppy—but you just know that somehow, some way, it all wraps around to good old-fashioned politics. And right now, for him, that means Hillary.
“Almost everything he does has that in mind,” said Jennifer Duffy, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington.
Mr. Clinton certainly deserves unconditional credit for raising billions for worthy causes. At the same time, he also used the occasion to demonstrate his ability to go through his Hillary ’08 talking points in that buttery Arkansas drawl— I don’t know if she’ll run, and I don’t know if she’d win, but I do know she’d make one heck of a President—and without having them sound like talking points at all.
But Hillary for President is always there, as it has been since the raw, rainy January morning the Clintons left the White House in 2001, and as this past week demonstrated, it’s hardly a stretch to connect the former President’s public actions to some ’08 imperative.
There is, for example, the threat his wife may face in the Democratic primaries on the Iraq question. Hillary, of course, voted for the 2002 war resolution and has spent the better part of the last four years ducking and evading entreaties—from reporters and activists alike—to revisit her rationale. And it may be costing her with an emboldened left wing—the same activists who just stripped Joe Lieberman of the party’s support in Connecticut—especially since John Edwards, Russ Feingold and even Al Gore have all staked out turf firmly to her left on Iraq.
Enter Bill, who offered during his Meet the Press appearance on Sunday something that sounded very much like a trial balloon for how Hillary might ultimately address her ’02 vote.
“What I believe was an error,” the former President told Mr. Russert, “was for us to unilaterally invade before the United Nations had finished its inspections. Because we said the reason the Congress was asked to vote to approve this was to give teeth to the U.N. inspections, and then to use the authority to invade if he flunked the inspections.”
In other words, Hillary voted for the war—but she wasn’t really for it.
“He’s almost lending a credible voice to this issue of, essentially, ‘You could be for it before you were against it,’” Ms. Duffy said.
There was also Bill’s sit-down with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday—although “sit-down” is a misleading description, since the former President mainly leaned forward, jabbed his finger in Mr. Wallace’s face and badgered him to “tell the truth.”
Mr. Clinton’s belligerence—perhaps justified, given Fox News’ transparent courtship of conservative viewers—could easily be read as another effort to endear himself and his wife to liberals and progressives, many of whom have probably imagined themselves dressing down various Fox personalities much the way Bill did.
“I kind of appreciate that he stood up to some of that agenda journalism,” said Jim Dean, the chairman of Democracy for America, the progressive group launched two years ago by his brother, Howard. “I think it’s good that he called them out on it.”
It was also a bit of aggressiveness that Hillary, demonized by the right as an angry feminist for much of her career, probably can’t afford to display. Instead, she was able to wait a day and then, without accusing anyone in her immediate vicinity of smirking, calmly declare that “my husband did a great job in demonstrating that Democrats are not going to take these attacks.”
“She’s in a position, until the November election, of being the best Senator from New York she can be, and in some ways he’s filling that void,” Ms. Duffy said. “Now, in the long run, is that good? That remains to be seen. People don’t elect a co-President.”
That Mr. Clinton even agreed to a rap session with Rupert Murdoch’s right-leaning news division was noteworthy. After all, Mr. Clinton surely hasn’t forgotten how Mr. Murdoch’s New York Post tormented him for two weeks in April 1992, when the fate of his wobbly Presidential bid hung in the balance in New York’s Democratic primary. Then again, Mr. Murdoch actually played host to a fund-raiser for Senator Clinton’s re-election campaign earlier this year, a development that spoke to Bill and Hillary’s concerted push to make theirs a less-polarizing name.
The most significant component of Mr. Clinton’s media tour, though, came last Wednesday, when he stood with Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin Companies chief and “rebel billionaire,” to announce a 10-year, $3 billion commitment from Sir Richard to combat global warming.
It was, no doubt, terrific news for what’s left of the polar ice caps—but it may be even better for Hillary. Global warming, after all, is supposed to be Mr. Gore’s issue—the Big Cause through which he redeems himself after his 2000 humiliation and discovers a moral purpose for an ’08 campaign. Which, of course, makes him a very real threat to Hillary’s own nomination prospects.
Mr. Gore appeared at Mr. Clinton’s conference last week as well—but it was the image of a beaming Bill and a tie-less Sir Richard that made most of the papers. Republicans still lament the way that Mr. Clinton co-opted them in the 90’s, embracing a slew of G.O.P. policy ideas—like welfare reform—and hording the political benefit for himself. Is he now, on behalf of his wife, doing the same to his own Vice President?
“He truly laid his soul on the line for this issue,” Mr. Dean said of Mr. Gore. “I have a lot of respect for people like that. And if Senator Clinton begins doing these kinds of things on global warming, energy independence and Iraq, then I think she’d probably get more support than she already has.”
And if you’re skeptical about the Bill-stealing-Al’s-thunder plotline, consider the talk that Mr. Clinton gave to Democrats in Florida back in June, when he paid tribute to Mr. Gore’s work on global warming—by telling a crowd of Florida Democrats that “it is now generally recognized that while Al Gore and I were ridiculed, we were right about global warming.”
Come again? The mockery that Mr. Gore has endured for his environmentalism is well documented—“Ozone Man,” you may recall, was the nickname then-President George H.W. Bush hung on him in the closing days on the ’92 campaign. But Bill?
Of course, if you asked him about it, Mr. Clinton could probably outline several hundred wonkish programs that he signed off on as President to curb global warming, each most likely a perfectly legitimate policy item. But, like every sentence he utters, you’d still be left wondering how—and not if—he wants it to affect the next election.