Bill Clinton to become omnipresent in campaign
Former President Bill Clinton addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday.
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Harry Truman told Texas voters in 1960 that if they "didn't vote for Kennedy, they could go to hell."
Former President Bill Clinton didn't exactly do that Wednesday at the Democratic National Convention, but his riveting, rapturously received brief for Mr. Obama's re-election (actually not so brief: the speech ran overtime at 49 minutes) means we'll be seeing a lot more of him during the next nine weeks.
While plenty of presidents have campaigned for their vice presidents -- not to mention the party's nominees -- this is a first: a former chief executive going all out to help the current chief executive stay in the White House.
Mr. Clinton will head out to the hustings this week in the swing states of Ohio and Florida, appearing in Miami on Tuesday and Orlando on Wednesday. The Obama campaign has not announced the rest of his schedule, but he'll be deployed extensively in the Midwest, where blue-collar voters remain skeptical of Mr. Obama but enthused by Mr. Clinton. The former president will speak in Pittsburgh twice in October, for events not part of the campaign: the Robert Morris University Pittsburgh Speakers Series at Heinz Hall on Oct. 4 and the opening of the One Young World Summit on Oct. 18.
"This is going to be unprecedented," said David McCullough, author of numerous presidential biographies, noting that Mr. Obama, a gifted orator himself, knew what he was doing when he had the former president deliver his nominating speech -- the first ever to do so. "As a fellow practitioner of the fine art of inspiring people with the English language, Mr. Obama knows a star performer when he sees one," Mr. McCullough said.
Truman campaigned for Democratic nominees Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy -- neither of whom he had much use for, Mr. McCullough said. In 1836, Andrew Jackson did it for Martin Van Buren, and Theodore Roosevelt did it for William Howard Taft in 1908 before souring on him three years later (calling the portly Taft "a fat head") and making an unsuccessful third-party re-election bid. Dwight Eisenhower did some campaigning for Richard Nixon in 1960, but when asked what Nixon had accomplished in his eight years as vice president, he famously said, "If you give me a week, I might think of one."
Nixon claimed later he'd been told Ike was too ill to stump for him, while Eisenhower said he'd never been asked, said Joel Goldstein, a presidential historian at St. Louis University School of Law. Ronald Reagan groomed George H.W. Bush to be his successor for "a third Reagan term," Mr. Goldstein added, saying that Reagan did campaign for him, mostly in California. (In an odd twist, Reagan also campaigned for Truman -- in 1948, when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild.)
"That's the model instance where a president has helped someone else achieve the presidency," Mr. Goldstein said. "It's hard to imagine how he could have done more for the first Mr. Bush than he did." He took actions designed to help Bush with moderates; had U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese, who was embroiled in ethical controversies, resign; and appointed a Hispanic man as secretary of education to help Bush with Hispanic voters.
In contrast, Mr. Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, tried to run "as his own man" in 2000, and paid the price.
"After hearing Bill Clinton's speech, Al Gore should be kicking himself," said former Gov. Ed Rendell, who, in his recent book, "A Nation of Wusses," recalled being rebuffed by Gore advisers when he urged them to make more use of Mr. Clinton. "Their reaction was, 'you don't understand, we've tested this,' " he said in an interview Friday. "It was a stupid proposition."
Now, the Big Dog is back -- really back. He enjoys a 69 percent approval rating in opinion polls. He's already raised $5.5 million for Mr. Obama, along with an addition $1 million for an Obama super PAC, but now he'll be gunning on all cylinders, a prospect that promises to be "unique," said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian and author of a recent book on Theodore Roosevelt's environmental legacy. Roosevelt's campaign for Taft was not analogous to today's, though, since he was a sitting president who decided not to run for a second term.
"Not since the age of Jackson have you had a former president playing such a monumental role," said Mr. Brinkley.
Still, there's this: Mr. Obama defeated Mr. Clinton's wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for the 2008 Democratic nomination.
"You don't feel that animosity anymore," said Mr. Brinkley, noting he'd been in the hall for Mr. Clinton's speech. (Ms. Clinton was not: as secretary of state, she is prohibited from campaigning, but she was photographed in East Timor, 10,000 miles away in the Indian Ocean, watching her husband's speech online.)
"I think there have got to be mixed feelings, but you get the sense that Mr. Clinton is putting his entire career in the service of Barack Obama. His support is visceral, not just for Obama, but he truly seems to fear Paul Ryan. He kind of brought back this whole 'Yes We Can' thing."
Mr. Clinton's tough, lucid explication of policy differences with the Republicans, a fierce but civil argument for a second term for Mr. Obama, will be aimed at a key tranche of this electorate: moderate to conservative Democrats -- centrist "Clinton Democrats" that 10 to 15 percent of undecided voters who are fiscally conservative, who responded to Mr. Clinton's message back in the 1990s to "end welfare as we know it."
"Clinton is the messenger to the undecided voter, who doesn't want to hear the red meat of liberal rhetoric. But he can only do it up to a point," said Lanny Davis, former special counsel to Mr. Clinton in the White House. "Bill Clinton appeals to center-right voters and moderates, and they are the only votes that count now. And to close the deal, it's not enough to have Bill Clinton say the words. The people have to hear the message and believe it's from Obama, too."
Don't think the Republicans don't know this. Immediately after the speech the GOP put up political ads with clips of Mr. Clinton sputtering in 2008 about the media's soft treatment of Mr. Obama compared to his wife -- "Give me a break. This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen."
And Mr. Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate, said at a Beverly Hills fundraiser Friday that Mr. Obama was "not a Bill Clinton Democrat," while Mr. Romney's campaign announced that the GOP nominee will appear on "Meet The Press" today. He, like Mr. Obama, has declined to go on that program for nearly three years. Mr. Obama will appear today on "Face the Nation" (in an interview taped Saturday).
And Mr. Clinton?
Check your TV listings for times and dates over the next nine weeks -- he'll be there.
First Published September 9, 2012 12:00 am