Ignoring polling to the contrary, Ignatius asserted there's a "nagging uneasiness" about having both Clintons back in the White House

››› ››› SARAH PAVLUS

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius asserted of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign: "[V]oters are grappling with the unusual questions that would surround her presidency. And the most important of these is the 'two presidents' problem. Whatever you think of the Clintons, it's hard to get your mind around having a current and former president in the White House." But a September 27-30 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 60 percent of respondents said they "personally feel comfortable ... with the idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House." And in several other 2007 polls, a majority of respondents stated that Bill Clinton is an asset to Hillary Clinton's campaign or would have a positive effect on a Hillary Clinton administration.

In his December 9 column, headlined "Hillary's Ex Factor: The 'Two Presidents' Issue Isn't Going Away," Washington Post columnist David Ignatius asserted of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (D-NY) presidential campaign: "[V]oters are grappling with the unusual questions that would surround her presidency. And the most important of these is the 'two presidents' problem. Whatever you think of the Clintons, it's hard to get your mind around having a current and former president in the White House." Ignatius added, "[T]here's still a nagging uneasiness about having these two complicated Clintons back together at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave." He concluded: "The 'two presidents' issue isn't a disqualifier, in my view. But it does need to be talked about. It matters to the country, and it's not going to go away." In fact, polling does not support Ignatius' suggestion that "the country" is afflicted with "a nagging uneasiness about having these two complicated Clintons back" in the White House. As Media Matters for America has noted, a September 27-30 Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 60 percent of respondents said they "personally feel comfortable ... with the idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House."

Indeed, an October 4 Washington Post article reported, "Former president Bill Clinton has emerged as a clear asset in his wife's campaign for the White House, with Americans offering high ratings to his eight years in office and a solid majority saying they would be comfortable with him as first spouse, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll." Moreover, the article also noted that "Americans said they would not regard the election of" Hillary Clinton "as simply the resumption of her husband's presidency. Instead, two-thirds said she would take her presidency in a different direction, and half of all Americans said they believed that would be a good development. About half of those who said it would be a resumption described that as positive."

In addition to the September 27-30 Post/ABC poll, Media Matters has previously documented several other 2007 polls in which a majority of respondents stated that Bill Clinton is an asset to Hillary Clinton's campaign and would have a positive effect on a Hillary Clinton administration:

  • A September 25-26 Fox News poll found that 53 percent of respondents thought that of the spouses of seven presidential candidates (including both Democrats and Republicans), Bill Clinton "would help [his] spouse the most to win the White House."
  • An April 10-12 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found that 60 percent of respondents thought Bill Clinton would have a "positive effect" on a Hillary Clinton administration.
  • A March 23-25 Gallup poll found that 70 percent of respondents thought Bill Clinton would do "more good than harm" for Hillary Clinton's campaign.
  • A February 22-25 Gallup poll found that 70 percent of respondents thought Bill Clinton would be "mostly helpful ... to her [Hillary Clinton's] presidency."

A more recent survey of 300 New Hampshire Democrats, conducted November 25-27 by Suffolk University's Political Research Center with WHDH-TV in Boston, found that 81 percent of respondents thought Bill Clinton was an asset for Hillary Clinton.

Despite the existence of such polling data, Time columnist Joe Klein linked to Ignatius' column, calling it "wise," in a December 9 post on Time's political blog, Swampland.

From the December 9 edition of The Washington Post:

The clearest account of what Bill Clinton would do in a future Democratic administration comes from Barack Obama, who told Time magazine that he would "in a second" offer the former president a job in an Obama administration. "There are few more talented people," he explained.

A fuzzier version of Bill Clinton's future role comes from his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton. She said in April that if elected, she would make him a kind of roving ambassador. "I can't think of a better cheerleader for America than Bill Clinton, can you?" The former president, with the same gee-whiz tone, promised that if Madame President "asks me to do something, whatever it was, I would probably do it."

Hillary Clinton is still the Democratic front-runner in national polls. But the aura of inevitability that surrounded her nomination a few months ago has begun to slip. That's because Obama is doing better in Iowa and New Hampshire, but it may also be because voters are grappling with the unusual questions that would surround her presidency. And the most important of these is the "two presidents" problem. Whatever you think of the Clintons, it's hard to get your mind around having a current and former president in the White House.

The Clinton campaign's approach has been mostly to ignore the issue -- and to suggest subtly that it's unfair or sexist if people raise it. For months, that seemed to work: Hillary proved to be a very good candidate, better than many expected, and she established a strong, independent voice. She has dominated most of the debates, and she promises something the country needs, which is an ability to govern from the center and put performance first.

But there's still a nagging uneasiness about having these two complicated Clintons back together at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It's the elephant in the room -- or in this case, the West Wing. And it's time for Hillary Clinton to address this issue directly. It's like Mitt Romney's Mormonism. The Romney campaign hoped this concern would just go away. But it didn't, and the candidate finally addressed it directly in a speech Thursday in Texas.

Hillary Clinton needs to discuss honestly what it would be like to share the White House with the former president. Rather than ducking the issue, she should lead the discussion of her husband's appropriate role -- one that recognizes the benefits of his experience and also the limits on his activities.

First, consider the upside of the two President Clintons: Listening to Bill at conferences over the past seven years, I have often been struck by how much he understands about governing effectively. He sees the mistakes he made as president, and he has good advice about how to avoid similar goofs. From the Middle East to economic policy, I can imagine Bill Clinton being a unique source of wise counsel.

A second benefit is what might be called the "Bobby Kennedy factor." President John F. Kennedy's creative solution of the Cuban missile crisis depended on his ability to think boldly, in private, with his brother. JFK was able to explore with this intimate adviser a deal that would avert nuclear war without worrying that he would look weak in front of his Cabinet.

The downside of the two Clintons is more complicated. What worries me most is that Bill Clinton's political history is unfinished and that, as First Laddie, he would have an opportunity to add another (unelected) chapter -- by shaping his wife's presidency in a way that burnishes his own legacy. Then there are his extensive foreign contacts -- a potential benefit but also a danger. What person on Bill's global Rolodex wouldn't think he had a special "in" at the White House?

The Clintons this time around have avoided the "Buy one, get one free" talk that led people to imagine a co-presidency in 1993. But as Sally Bedell Smith makes clear in her comprehensive look at their relationship, "For Love of Politics," these two are a political team, peculiarly but indissolubly bound together. Even after Hillary publicly disavowed a policy role after the collapse of her health-care plan and the disastrous 1994 congressional elections, she continued to be intensively active behind the scenes -- lobbying her husband, vetting appointments and giving advice. There's no reason to imagine that Bill would be any different.

The "two presidents" issue isn't a disqualifier, in my view. But it does need to be talked about. It matters to the country, and it's not going to go away.

Posted In
Elections, Government
Network/Outlet
The Washington Post
Person
David Ignatius
Stories/Interests
2008 Elections
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