Let Bill do it.
With Democrats facing a daunting midterm season, it’s time to bring in the Big Dawg, not just as a campaigner but as a strategic driving force with the resources to deploy and dominate the message wars from coast to coast. Put him in charge of one of the existing super PACs—which would instantly multiply its fundraising—or form a new one that can operate on a genuinely super scale, with a pervasive reach. Let the Republicans have Karl Rove and Sheldon Adelson, the gambling mogul who in 2012 seemed to have all the electoral magic of a muggle. They, and the Koch brothers, would prove no match in messaging for Bill Clinton—and he’s the best chance to come close to matching them financially by attracting money beyond the Obama true believers among the big givers and the grass roots.
First, he has the right instinct about a year in which a platoon of Democrats appear to think—it’s not really thinking but reflex desperation—that they can run by hiding from health-care reform. Clinton has already rebuked that reflex, advising his party’s candidates that they “have to turn in toward all the controvers[y] and embrace it”—just as he did in a spectacular tour de force from the podium of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. He didn’t make what he calls “the terrible mistake” of “shy[ing] away from the health care deal.”
Clinton had to live with the consequences when too many Democrats contrived to flee their own history in the 1994 midterm contest that followed the failure of his health-care plan. So many of them lost that the party lost both the House and the Senate. Clinton understands that the last refuge of Democratic fear and trembling is to pretend you’re not really a Democrat, or not that much of a Democrat—and that the last thing we need, this year or then, is two Republican parties. The real Republicans will win out every time.
Four years later, he learned—or taught—another lesson during another midterm election. In 1998, the Democratic establishment was terrified to confront the GOP elephant stomping down the campaign trail. Democratic candidates were talking about anything and everything—except impeachment. Clinton himself had practiced the politics of triangulation during his reelection, although he prevailed primarily because of a fast-rising economy and the Gingrich-engineered government shutdown. But in 1998, he sensed the urgency and the utility of taking impeachment on directly—and certainly not defensively. Frustrated by conventional wisdom that routinely dismissed the notion as strategic malpractice, he was energized and engaged as an independent expenditure, spearheaded by a major contributor named Danny Abraham, prepared to go on the air just a week before Election Day to indict the GOP for wasting months and millions on their relentless pursuit of political revenge. I was a political consultant then, and my partners and I were producing the ads. The president of the United States was phoning our office with his “suggestions.” He is not only a hell of a speech-giver but a hell of a scriptwriter.
This is “no ordinary time,” one ad began. Instead of the GOP’s obsession with unending “investigations,” shouldn’t we be focusing on the issues that matter to Americans—Social Security, education, health care? Wasn’t it time to “move on”? Conveniently, the Republicans were obsessed, and so they were reinforcing the Clinton argument with a stream of commercials that battered the president and blasted his “scandals.”
Democrats might have reclaimed a House majority if this effort had started sooner and been amplified consistently across party and candidate advertising. Nonetheless, Democrats did game five House seats—unprecedented for a party holding the White House in the sixth year of a presidency. Gingrich’s “impeachment spectacle had left voters gagging, and… a humiliating defeat” triggered a GOP mutiny that defenestrated him from his speakership.
Today’s Republicans are obsessed with Obamacare. Clinton, who’s so comfortable drawing distinctions on specific issues, could and would put Democrats on the offensive here. He understands that the question is not just the 7.5 million people already securing coverage on the exchanges, or the 8 million who will sign up for Medicaid this year, or the 100 million Americans who now have access to free preventive care, including mammograms for women. The explainer in chief can easily and eloquently point to all that. But he also can oversee the making of ads, alongside a flow of earned media events, that starkly hold the GOP accountable for voting to deny access to mammograms—and to let insurance companies refuse coverage because of preexisting conditions, cut it off when people get sick, or throw young adults off their parents’ policies.
That is the high ground of the battle if Democrats will seize it. And it has the additional advantage of being true, in contrast to the parade of broadcast lies featuring individual “horror” stories about Obamacare from conservative propagandists such as the misnamed Americans for Prosperity. If anything, the real horror stories are on the other side—for example, the young mother in Florida with a heart condition who died as she was struggling to afford medication after Republican Gov. Rick Scott turned down the federally funded expansion of Medicaid. Any ad invoking that tragedy would have to be exquisitely sensitive and carefully crafted.
Other issues beyond health care also could be pushed by a super PAC guided by Bill Clinton. They range from the minimum wage to the Paul Ryan budget, just supported by almost every House Republican, which would turn Medicare into a voucher program and cut off college aid for “low and moderate income students.” Seniors don’t have to vote Republican and won’t—and younger voters will turn out—if someone tells them what’s at stake. And who is better than Bill Clinton, not only in speeches but with a sustained message that follows and vastly magnifies the effective if belated anti-impeachment TV spots of 1998?
Finally, Clinton, the right fundraiser, the right messenger with the right instinct, also has close relationships with Democrats in Congress and virtually every state. He knows how to target and modulate the case to fit particular places, say Arkansas, where Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor shows every sign of pursuing the faux Republican strategy. He is in a tight race, but he might well follow a Clinton lead to a narrow victory in November.
Maybe it’s fantasy that Bill Clinton would consider this kind of decisive role in the midterms, but he should. Yes, he’s surely looking toward Hillary’s 2016 campaign—which I’m convinced she’ll be announcing next year. Yes, for the sake of his wife’s run, he may want to husband his fundraising prowess and the force field of his presence for contributors. But that next Clinton run for the White House will be hobbled if the GOP takes the Senate as well as the House—and manages to stall or reverse the economic recovery. And just listen to Bill: He obviously cares about the progressive purposes that are in danger now, especially the health-care reform for which he fought so long and so hard. He could and should take his own advice—“turn into the controversy”—and take the lead in “embracing it.”
Won’t that embarrass Barack Obama, the sitting president who is axiomatically the head of the Democratic Party? Wouldn’t that confirm that his hold on the party’s heart, and the voters’ affection, is shaky—that Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill was spot-on when she bluntly conceded that the president should stay out of tough Senate elections? McCaskill, the first woman in the Senate to endorse Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008, added that if she were on the ballot this year she “probably” wouldn’t bring Obama into her state.
The notion that Bill Clinton, by helping to save Democratic chances, would diminish Obama reminds me of the self-defeating notion that presidential nominees shouldn’t pick a running mate who could outshine them. It’s more important to be president than to out-glitter your No. 2. And the outcome in 2014 is more important to this president than who gets the credit if the tide turns toward the Democrats. If the GOP controls both the House and the Senate, the gridlock to come will make recent times look like a minor traffic jam.
The 44th president will have a part and an impact in 2014. There are places where Obama’s campaigning will lift his party. He has set forth the themes and drawn the battle lines. But he has a day job. The 42nd president could take the midterm campaign to a new level—to Democratic parity in paid communication and Democratic advantage on decisive issues.
And if this ever happens, Obama can return the favor in the 2022 midterm, when the second President Clinton is in her second term.