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Can Hillary Solve Her Bill Problem?

By Ronald A. Cass

Headstrong, engaging, but frustratingly difficult to direct - those were the qualities that had the nuns in "The Sound of Music" at wit's end trying to figure out how to deal with a novice by famously asking "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" Those are the same qualities that have members of Hillary Clinton's campaign struggling to figure out how to deal with someone who's no novice at all, the candidate's husband, who just happens to be a former President. In many ways, Bill is her strongest asset, but his presence on the campaign trail also casts a shadow on her candidacy. How, and whether, Senator Clinton's team can resolve that dilemma may have a lot to do with her chances.

During the past few weeks, Bill Clinton has been seen and heard a lot more, as Mrs. Clinton's campaign tries to right itself from a series of difficulties and the increasingly common perception that she has squandered a huge lead in the race for the Democratic nomination for President. Bill has turned out far bigger crowds than Hillary was drawing on her own - maybe not Oprah Winfrey size audiences, but still strong showings for the parts of Iowa and New Hampshire that have become pivotal battlegrounds for a candidate who, just a few short weeks ago, was trying to appear so certain a pick as to be above the real rough and tumble.

But the crowds aren't there for Hillary. And, unlike Oprah's stumping for Barack Obama, it's not clear that the ex-President's goal is wholly to make the crowds into Hillary supporters. Perhaps fitting for a marriage that has raised its share of questions about embraces, Bill hasn't completely embraced Hillary's positions just as Hillary hasn't fully embraced his. The goal from her side is to make it look like Hillary is the rightful heir to anything the public likes about Bill. From his side, the goal is part resurrection, part preservation, part transformation, and a lot of just enjoying the spotlight and living in the moment. Right now, Bill's side is ahead on points.

*****

Bill has certainly succeeded in getting attention. He made headlines by complaining that the news media were too hard on Hillary, holding her to a higher standard than other candidates. He caused ripples with his observation that Obama would be a risky choice and made waves by saying that he'd sit in on Cabinet meetings in a new Clinton administration only if Hillary wanted him to - and intervene in decisions only if he thought she wasn't doing things right. And he raised eyebrows with his suggestion that Hillary's first presidential priority would be to send him and his good friend, former President George H.W. Bush, on a goodwill tour around the world to repair America's tattered reputation and send the message that we're "open for business" again.

As he has throughout his life, Bill is going with what works for him. His first concern remains his own image and his own legacy. He parses words carefully, at times microscopically - which is how the word "Clintonian" came into our lexicon - but just as often Bill doesn't seem willing or able to control himself, whether the control is over what he says or what he does. There's always a sense of thrill-seeking, of enjoying flirting with danger, and of being on the star of a high wire act performing without a net.

The assertion that Hillary's "number one priority" would be sending the 41st and 42d Presidents around the world to fix the damage done by the 43d President can't have been something that he thought about before saying. Not only does it defy reality to think that this would be Hillary's main concern; it also defies belief that President George W. Bush's father would let himself be used in such an obvious and open slap at his son's foreign policy. The news stories garnered the predictable reaction from President Bush 41: he's proud of his son, proud of his son's foreign policy, and proud of what his son has done as President. It was, in effect, as thorough a slap-down as the gentlemanly Texan can deliver.

Bill's comments remind people of his reckless side. He does a lot that gratifies his need for attention from audiences and from the press - neither are things Hillary wants voters to remember.

*****

Bill's most telling unscripted comment may have been his response to Barbara Walters' question about the thinking behind Hillary's run for the White House. He started by reflecting on the (unfortunately, in his view) foreclosed possibility of a third term for himself. The message was clear: that would have been the best choice, but if he couldn't have that, then having his wife as President was a good second choice. Like Vladimir Putin having his hand-picked successor as President and himself as Premier.

But would this really be Bill's third term? Hillary isn't Bill. She may have some of the same issues respecting honesty and candor, but she doesn't have his charm, to be sure. That's why on the eve of the Iowa caucuses her campaign has launched another effort to show her warm and fuzzy side, the "Hillary I Know" tour of friends and relatives, the planned tear-shedding, the appearances designed to make her look like the cookie baker she so adamantly denied being when Bill first ran for President.

More to the point, it's not just their personalities that differ. Hillary carefully has kept her distance from some of her husband's most sensible policies. She expressly rejects the open-trade stance that helped fuel economic growth during Bill's presidency and calls for a reconsideration of NAFTA, for instance, one of the signal accomplishments of his time in office. All evidence points to a Clinton who is more rigidly committed to government intervention in the economy, more willing to impose additional costs on business, and more confident that limiting competition spurs economic success.

The Bill problem for Hillary is that, while she needs him to counter her stiff and abrasive image, to reduce her high negatives and appeal to a broader constituency, he outshines and diminishes her by comparison. Whether it's personal charisma or public fascination with watching a life lived on the edge, Hillary always comes in second. The problem for voters who aren't tired of the Clinton drama and prepared to reject either version - for those who aren't ready yet to close the book on Bill and Hillary and all the baggage they bring with them - is that they can't be sure which of this 2-for-1 combination they're really buying. Or at what price.

Ronald A. Cass is Dean Emeritus of Boston University School of Law and Chairman of the Center for the Rule of Law.

Ronald A. Cass is President of Cass & Associates, Dean Emeritus of Boston University School of Law, and author of "The Rule of Law in America" (Johns Hopkins University Press). © 2000-2007 RealClearPolitics.com All Rights Reserved


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