The conventional wisdom attests that Bill Clinton has been more trouble than help for his wife’s presidential campaign. Primary after primary, the Hillary Clinton campaign fumbled for an optimal way of utilizing the man who campaigned so well for himself just 16 years ago, but who now appears to be a liability at every turn. Could it be that Clinton has gone old and senile, that he has lost his magic? Is this an attention-seeking personality that just does not know when to step away from the spotlight and give others their turn?
These extant answers, which turn on Bill’s foibles, do not explain the coincidental timing of the sudden and precipitous loss of Bill’s personal touch. Bill Clinton is Hillary’s millstone, her permanent campaign faux pas because he is running to be the country’s first First Gentleman, a feat only a handful of men, and certainly no former president, has attempted. All his political skills matter little in this new arena: where once he applied his savvy in the arts of self-promotion, he now faces the subtler challenge of other-promotion. This is a Gulliver thrashing about trying to be a Lilliputian.
This isn’t just a personal transition Bill is experiencing. There are deeper institutional and cultural forces afoot that say as much about us as it does of Bill. Ours is not a culture used to cutting a president down to size because for all our republican ideals we always end up mythologizing them. (Certainly, the media is not used to covering former presidents as just another political spouse. That is why Bill gets so much attention, and why everything he says is magnified.) If my argument is persuasive, the conventional wisdom is absolutely right that Bill Clinton has turned out to be Hillary’s biggest asset and liability, but this seeming contradiction has not yet been explained. It is precisely because Bill has become such an iconic figure in the Democratic party that our political culture (and indeed the man himself) is still searching for what to make of the humbling of Gulliver. From this perspective, Bill Clinton’s verbal gaffes are only incidental to the social tectonic tremors his role transition has inevitably engendered. Bill has become a unique problem for his wife because the country had to watch him negotiate the transformation from erstwhile commander-in-chief to the spouse of an aspiring one. There was no way that this transition was going to be a smooth one, and if so it is a phenomenon in which we are complicit.