The Kremlinology of the Clinton political universe is forever murky and subject to interpretation. The signs at this point, however, suggest that Hillary Clinton and her husband have different ideas about what he’ll do. Perhaps more telling than Bill Clinton’s self- investigation is a subsidiary detail: He also asked his staffers to compile an exhaustive list of his achievements, which must be about as close to the creation of a résumé as ex-presidents get, and betrays a longing to return to the presidential campaign trail that Al Gore overcautiously denied him. But so far his wife, too, has played it safe and kept him in a traditional spousal role, or as much of one as a popular former president can assume.
Bill Clinton, initially a vocal champion of his wife’s presidential chops, has said next to nothing to the press since Hillary announced her candidacy in January. His advisers say he has deliberately taken a hands-off approach to her campaign and ordered his staff to defer to hers. With the 2008 campaign well under way, he has spent most of his time writing a book about citizen activism, delivering paid speeches to private audiences, and tending to his foundation.
Still, Hillary Clinton cannot entirely ignore the benefit of his appeal. The former president regularly hosts private fund-raisers for her campaign and sends blast e-mails soliciting money. He also acts as surrogate in chief when she’s unable to attend important events. And like a chef who prepares a special recipe on important occasions, Hillary Clinton will sometimes invoke her husband’s name and legacy. In February, speaking before largely black audiences on her first campaign swing through South Carolina, she referred to him no fewer than six times, drawing applause at the mention of his name. And he was prominently displayed (though he did not speak at her events) during her recent trip to Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the civil-rights movement.
Surprisingly enough, when husband and wife do talk publicly about the first Clinton administration, they don’t hesitate to discuss, at least indirectly, the scandal over the president’s marital infidelity—or, more precisely, the reaction to the scandal. As Bill Clinton wrote in a recent fund-raising pitch:
During eight years in the White House, Hillary and I faced a constant barrage of attacks from Washington Republicans. No insult was off- limits. No tactic was too low. They threw everything they could at us—but we beat them time and time again.
Likewise, Hillary Clinton’s oft-repeated justification for her candidacy— “Bill and I know how to beat [Republicans], and we have consistently”—is nothing if not an allusion to surviving her husband’s impeachment. Both Clintons try to use the memory of the Republican overreaction to the scandal to reignite liberal outrage, while simultaneously trying to prevent that scandal from overshadowing the current campaign by sequestering the man at the center of it. It’s a classic Clintonian straddle.
The irony of it all is that if the polls are to be believed—and if Bill Clinton’s elaborate self-examination didn’t turn up anything new—this tortured orchestration is unnecessary. And if you look closely, an answer to Hillary’s conundrum can be found right there in the numbers, too. Of those who think she would not make a good president, a recent Gallup/USA Today poll found that only 11 percent cite her husband as the reason. But of those who think she would, nearly half laud her experience, most of it gained in his administration, suggesting that “two for one” might be an attractive offer after all.