Bill Clinton: Extraordinary Candidate, Ordinary Surrogate

Bill Clinton’s crimes against his wife’s presidential bid, generally in the form of deceptive or merely ill-considered comments that have thrown her campaign off-message, have been well documented.

There was the flap back in November when he claimed that he’s opposed the Iraq war “from the beginning,” even though—like his wife—he was silent while President Bush marched the country to war. And the tirade he directed at a local television reporter before Nevada’s caucuses. And his apparent venture into racial politics, like when he sought to water down the impact of Barack Obama’s South Carolina victory by pointing out that Jesse Jackson had carried the state in his presidential campaigns. And so on.

Before this campaign, the legend of Bill Clinton had reached near-epic proportions. He was always considered a talented politician, but in the wake of his party’s agonizing defeats in 2000 and 2004, his status as the only Democratic president to win reelection since F.D.R. took on new significance. But his performance in this race has many who only months ago were celebrating his skills openly wondering if the master has lost his magic.

“Watching Bill on the trail,” NBC’s “First Read” wrote after he stuck his foot in his mouth over his wife’s Bosnia story last week, “makes folks wonder whether he could have held up to scrutiny in 1992 had YouTube and instant fact-checking existed back then. No one has seemed less prepared for the intense scrutiny of this campaign than Bill.”

That about sums up the new consensus about the 42nd president: he’s a gifted politician who has proven incapable of adapting to the media and technological evolutions that have changed the politicial world.

But there’s more to it than that. More significant than whether his candidate skills have kept up with the times is the simple fact that he’s no longer the candidate. He is a surrogate. And, to put it plainly, he’s been a poor one.

It’s certainly true that the Internet and the emergence and dominance of 24-hour news channels have altered the nature of presidential politics since Clinton first won his party’s nomination and the presidency in 1992. But in that ’92 campaign, the media reported on more than enough Clinton gaffes, blunders, inflammatory misstatements and outright scandals to sink him (or any other candidate), with or without YouTube.

Besides the obvious firestorms involving Gennifer Flowers and the Vietnam draft, candidate Clinton exhibited the same tendencies that he has during this campaign to lose his cool under pressure and to utter absurd and easily refuted pronouncements. And the media called him on all of it just as aggressively as it now does.

For instance, his Jesse Jackson comments this year (and, to some extent, his explosion at a television reporter in Nevada) call to mind another Jackson controversy from ’92. A few days after that year’s New Hampshire primary, which Clinton lost to Paul Tsongas, a local television reporter asked Clinton to comment on a (baseless, as it turned out) report that Jackson had decided to endorse Tom Harkin, whose campaign was barely clinging to life at that point. Clinton was furious.

“It’s an outrage,” he fumed, apparently believing the camera was off, “a dirty, double-crossing, back-stabbing thing to do. … For him to do this, for me to hear this on a television program, is an act of absolute dishonor.”

Because it was not published on YouTube, the outburst largely died after the campaign, but it was a major news story at the time. The clip was played endlessly on television and radio, written up extensively in newspaper and magazines, and even featured in a Tsongas ad aimed at black voters in Georgia. Jackson’s own response—“I am disturbed by the tone of the blast at my integrity, my character. I feel blind-sided by what I saw and heard him say”—kept the story alive for a few days longer. There may not have been a YouTube 16 years ago, but just as many Democratic voters were exposed to Clinton’s Jesse Jackson moment in ’92 as in 2008.

The ’92 campaign, you may recall, also introduced us to Clinton’s timeless “but I didn’t inhale” qualification to his admission of past marijuana use. Again, there was no Internet to beam a clip of this comment into every American’s computer, but between television, radio, and print news and Saturday Night Live and other late-night comedy shows, the remark gained universal recognition within days, reinforcing the widespread opinion that Clinton was slick.

The media worked differently in ’92, but Clinton’s flaws were aired just as loudly as they are now. And it took a considerable toll on him, with ominous numbers of voters expressing concern over his honesty, integrity and basic character. Even among his supporters, it was a commonly accepted view in the spring of 1992 that he had probably accrued too much baggage to win in the fall.

“Bill Clinton should not be the nominee of our party because he will not be able to win,” Bob Kerrey, one of his nomination rivals, bluntly said at one point. “This is a truth that is largely unspoken but is almost universally believed by those who have been through these things before.”

Clinton’s success in ’92 was a testament to the strength of his own personal appeal. Even though Democrats were well aware of his shortcomings and gravely doubted his ability to win, they made him their general-election standard-bearer. And even though the Republicans cranked up their notorious attack machine against him, Clinton still defeated George H. W. Bush.

For all the scrutiny and ridicule Clinton faced in the ’92 campaign, he was still the central figure in his own campaign. It was his name on the ballot; his face on the news every night, answering every charge brought against him and leveling a few of his own. It was his personality that voters were ultimately asked to make a judgment on. And more of them liked him than didn’t.

That is not the dynamic now at work. As a surrogate, Clinton only sporadically makes major headlines—generally because of something controversial he’s said and done. But it’s his wife who dominates news coverage and whose name is on the ballot. In ’92, Bill Clinton could rely on his flawless communication skills to bail himself out of any mess he created for himself. Likewise, in 2008, he has created messes for his wife. But his charm hasn’t been enough to rescue her from them.

Bill Clinton’s magic is still there. But apparently, it only works when he’s the one who’s running.

Bill Clinton: Extraordinary Candidate, Ordinary Surrogate