Does Barack Obama Need a Friend Like Bill Clinton?

A series of unhelpful comments by the former president has unnerved Democrats and emboldened Republicans. Robert Shrum says Bill Clinton should give advice—but not in the media.

06.11.12 5:17 PM ET

From Fox News came the exultant headline: “Once shunned Clinton emerges as GOP’s election year ally.” They weren’t talking about Hillary—and for once, the network of the reactionary right was right.

In a rapid-fire burst of attention-grabbing hyperactivity, Bill Clinton last week defended Mitt Romney’s business career as “sterling” and renounced the Obama campaign’s attack on Romney’s vampire capitalism. The former president added that with his record as governor, Romney “crosses the qualification threshold”—just as Obama’s latest advertising was focusing on indicting Mitt for making Massachusetts 47th among states in job creation. Clinton also fretted that with so many people thinking Obama has “failed,” the campaign’s imperative should not be to go after Romney, but to go positive and “explain what [the president] did” on the economy. Bill then topped off this remarkable excursion into the 2012 spotlight by appearing to endorse the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, transgressing one of the central dividing lines of the campaign.

As Republicans suddenly celebrated the man they had so bitterly sought to impeach, Clinton backed off—most explicitly on the tax cuts. “Upper-income people,” he sheepishly told CNN, “will have to contribute to long-term debt reduction.” His aides offered the stunning excuse that while still “mentally sharp, [Clinton] is older and a step off his political game.”

The truth is that for Clinton, this kind of strategic freelancing is habitual. “He can’t help himself,” one of his White House advisers said to me. “His political consultant voice seeps out.” More accurately, it booms out—and when he’s advising others, the candidate and president who was masterful at his own politics is often wrong.

Clinton’s endorsement of Romney’s time at Bain Capital, instantly seconded by longtime Clinton ally and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, was understandable. Both men—and Newark Mayor Corey Booker, who had sounded the same tune even earlier—are close to the financial industry, not just geographically but also in their professional and social lives. Their reaction seemed almost instinctive—and it echoed the GOP apologia for Romney.

But there’s a vital distinction between two kinds of private equity. One invests in companies and seeks growth; the other takes over marginal enterprises, loads them down with debt, fires workers and cuts wages and health benefits, racks up big fees, and then waddles away swollen with profits as the business goes under. That’s what happened with a Romney-era Bain deal spotlighted in one Obama ad. Bain reaped a windfall of $20 for every dollar it put into a company called Ampad. In the end, Ampad closed, all the jobs were lost, and Romney and his partners made $100 million.

I saw the power of this issue when I was Ted Kennedy’s strategist in his 1994 Senate race against Romney. After the primary, the Republican challenger held a 1-point lead; on Election Day, he lost in a landslide. In 2012 in places like Ohio and Michigan, the workers in the Obama ads, speaking in their own words as they did in the Kennedy ads two decades ago about what Romney’s firm did to them, are far more compelling than elite chatter in the Acela corridor—or Clintonian reservations about the propriety or political wisdom of such criticism.

After 18 years, Romney still can’t talk about this critique except in the briefest and most awkward ways. He changes the subject, which is why the Obama campaign ought to amplify it—and certainly will. It’s not a stand-alone attack, but the beginning of a narrative that will move from the Republican nominee’s callous profiteering in business to his failures as governor to his current espousal of policies that would comfort the comfortable with massive tax breaks, while afflicting the middle class with measures to cut education and end Medicare as we now know it.

That’s the flip side of the positive message that will be at the heart of the president’s campaign: he’s fighting for jobs and Romney destroyed them; he’s fighting for the many and Romney favors the few. You need both sides of the message. It’s simply incorrect to imply, as Clinton did, that the Obama campaign should concentrate on the positive—or to argue, as much of the conventional wisdom does, that by drawing the contrast with Romney, Obama forfeits the power of his 2008 appeal. That year, he launched wave after wave of tough ads against John McCain; he matched the throw-weight of the McCain spots, which were almost entirely negative. Similarly, in the pretelevision era, FDR was the candidate of hope running for reelection in 1936 while denouncing the “economic royalists” on the other side.

Clinton also appears to have forgotten his own 1996 reelection campaign. Yes, he called for “building a bridge to the 21st century”—and undergirded it with a series of modest, now-forgotten proposals. But his advertising mostly consisted of an unrelenting assault on Bob Dole, taking him to task for the government shutdown, for his attempts to cut Medicare, for his “reckless” tax plan, and for his association with the profoundly unpopular House Speaker Newt Gingrich. It reached the point where Americans could be pardoned for thinking that Dole’s last name was Gingrich. Obama would be better off to do what Clinton did then than what Clinton says now.

There’s other historical evidence suggesting that the former president’s campaign counsel is hardly infallible.

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In 2000 he pushed to be front and center on behalf of Al Gore—and afterward Gore was blamed for not using him enough. As a consultant to the Gore campaign, it wasn’t pleasant to resist Clinton. But in Iowa, for example, which Gore would win in a one-squeaker, our October polling found that “Clinton’s personal ratings here have always been the worst of any battleground state, especially among swing voters.” A postelection study by a team of political scientists referenced again this week in The New York Times concluded that Gore lost—if, given Florida, you can call it a defeat—“because unfairly he was tarnished by Clinton’s personal negatives.” So we weren’t happy when in the final hours of the campaign, Clinton announced that Gore was the “next best thing” to a third Clinton term; as Gore acidly observed, that was a helpful way to put it.

Similarly, in 2004, the former president’s “advice” to John Kerry tended to show up in the newspapers unsettling and dividing the campaign at a critical time in September. But the most glaring instance of Clintonian misjudgment was the damage he inflicted on his wife’s presidential bid in South Carolina four years ago. He insisted on stumping there, despite the campaign’s polling that had Obama well ahead. He elevated the importance of the primary; in a debate, Obama wryly said to Hillary Clinton that he couldn’t tell who he was running against—“you or your husband.” Hillary lost badly in South Carolina, Bill compared Obama with Jessie Jackson, and his conduct during the contest provoked what was arguably a game-clinching Obama endorsement from Ted Kennedy.

I guess that Hillary, who has lived this history and who may run and win in 2016, played a part in pulling Bill back onto the reservation following his Romney-abetting foray into this election season. But the episode, combined with the Wisconsin recall and the May jobs numbers, stoked a chain reaction of hand wringing and worry among Democrats. Most of it was sotto voce. But the irrepressible Rendell publicly doubled down on his earlier comments, suggesting in effect that Hillary would have been a better president than Obama because “she would have come in with a lot more executive experience ... the president was hurt by being a legislator only.”

Maybe it’s in the nature of Democrats that they never miss an opportunity to panic; Republicans by contrast are at least publicly steadfast—as they were, for example, when George W. Bush fell behind Kerry. The Democratic panic this time abated a little when the Purple Poll of the battleground states served up reassurance on the Bain front: “Hedge fund/private equity argument may provide a key wedge issue for Obama ...

The result shouldn’t have been surprising. Despite Clinton, did anyone really assume that the Obama campaign entered this fray without research and focus-group data? And I assume that if Clinton had expressed his doubts first and privately to the campaign, the polling would have been shared with him. Maybe now it has.

This will be a fraught election. There are dangers ahead over which Obama has little or no control. Republicans yearning for an economic slowdown have blocked every measure for job creation in the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party otherwise known as the House of Representatives. If Chancellor Angela Merkel remains unyieldingly wedded to austerity or finally reacts too slowly and too late to the euro-zone crisis, Germany may destroy Europe for the third time in a century—this time, without firing a shot. The contagion could poison our economy too. Such contingencies are all the more reason for Democrats to stand together; after all, it’s probably not foolhardy to trust an Obama political operation that achieved the nearly impossible in 2008—and plainly has a disciplined game plan for the months ahead.

No campaign can afford a multitude of competing strategies, or row upon row of bullfight critics publicly questioning every move. Not even if one of them is the president who brilliantly brought the party out of the desert of 12 years of defeat. That doesn’t guarantee that he is always spot on—and he can be wildly off the mark.

So Bill, give advice—but not in the media. You can make the right kind of difference in this election—for Democrats. I believe you will. And I believe you’ve gotten this year’s South Carolina out of your system early. That’s the good news. If it holds through November, there will be no reason to think or say again: With a friend like Bill ...