Selling Barack Obama was easy. Tuesday, Bill Clinton faces a more difficult challenge: selling Hillary Clinton as a future president
Former President Clinton will headline the second night of the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday facing a nation with lingering doubts about Hillary Clinton’s trustworthiness.
He speaks as those doubts about her have fueled alarmingly high polling negatives, anger among supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and a throbbing hangover from leaked Democratic National Committee emails that many Sanders backers say confirms that the system was “rigged” against their candidate.
Aggravating the challenge: The 42nd president himself may prove more of a liability than a help as Hillary Clinton’s top surrogate against the fiery, take-no-prisoners campaign style of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“The trouble this time is the rules are broken,” said Patrick Maney, a Boston College history professor who’s the author of “Bill Clinton: New Gilded Age President,” “I just think Trump has just changed the rules.”
Four years ago, Bill Clinton gave such a popular convention speech pitching the re-election of President Obama that Obama said he should be the “secretary of explaining stuff.” But Republicans such as Mitt Romney didn’t really push back.
Trump and GOP officials now seek to blunt Bill Clinton’s effectiveness by attacking the Clinton Foundation, the nonprofit organization he established post-presidency, for accepting millions of dollars in donations from foreign governments while his wife served as secretary of state.
Trump also has aggressively gone after Bill Clinton for his sexual misdeeds, using his affair with Monica Lewinsky to brand Hillary Clinton as an enabler who has hurt women to protect her husband’s career.
“He’s had to keep his head in the foxhole because he doesn’t want to overshadow Hillary,” Maney said “They’re trying to neutralize him as a powerful, positive weapon he might be for Hillary, and to also get under his skin.”
By doing so, Trump and Republicans are hoping that Bill Clinton will implode as Hillary Clinton’s main surrogate and devolve into the angry spokesman he was during the 2008 South Carolina Democratic primary.
The former president alienated many of the state’s African-American voters when he compared Obama’s campaign to a “fairy tale.”
He also recalled that Greenville native Jesse Jackson had won the Palmetto State’s Democratic contests in 1984 and 1988 but didn’t win the Democratic presidential nomination, which many African-American voters in the state took as a racial swipe at Obama.
“There is something strange that happens when Bill Clinton campaigns for his wife,” said John Carroll, an assistant professor of mass communication at Boston University. “For some reason, he loses some of his political equilibrium and political sure-footedness when he campaigns for her.”
Paul Begala, who was a strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, said the former president wasn’t mentally ready in 2008 to take on the chief surrogate role.
“He was out there for her, but the attacks on her really upset him, hurt him,” said Begala, who’s a senior adviser for Priorities USA, a pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC. “We have all seen that he’s armored up in a way that he hadn’t in ’08. He’s more psychologically prepared for that now.”
As Trump attacks intensify through the general election campaign, Begala predicts, they will backfire, as they did during Clinton’s impeachment over the Lewinsky affair.
“The political graveyards are littered with corpses of people who thought personal attacks on Bill Clinton would work. They never have; they never will,” said Begala. “If they want to continue to do it, I can guarantee you it will fail. Ask Ken Starr. Ask Henry Hyde.”
Starr, the independent counsel whose investigation of Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky led to his impeachment, was ousted as president of Baylor University in May amid a sexual assault scandal involving the Baptist school’s football team.
Hyde, who died in 2007, was the chair of the House Judiciary Committee during Clinton’s impeachment. He acknowledged that he’d had an affair with a married woman in the 1960s.