Last week found Bill Clinton in the unaccustomed position of being only the third-most-significant Clinton in the news: he trailed his wife, the secretary of state, and his daughter, whose wedding rivaled Princess Diana's in terms of a media frenzy. As a result, people may not have noticed that the father of the bride appeared at a boisterous South Boston union hall last week to endorse Democratic Representative Stephen F. Lynch and at a fundraiser for Democratic Representative Leonard Boswell of Iowa. But in Washington everything Clinton does gets noticed. Here, the marriage that counts is the political marriage between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and the jitters aren't matrimonial but electoral.
The midterm elections are just three months away. All across the country, Democratic members of Congress are bracing for tough reelection campaigns, and doing so without a valuable asset. The sky-high approval ratings that carried Barack Obama into the White House in 2008 -- and brought so many Democrats to Washington with him -- have diminished, in some places greatly. Obama's overall standing hovers around 45 percent and much lower in places like Arkansas and Missouri, where key Democrats are running in especially difficult races. That's significant, because, as Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, has noted, ''When it comes to choosing candidates for Congress, it is opinions of the president's performance that matter.'' Today, many Democrats find themselves pondering a question that would have seemed unthinkable only a year ago: Does President Obama help them or hurt them?
Applied to President Clinton, that's a much easier question to answer. He has emerged as the surrogate of choice for embattled Democrats. In May, he campaigned vigorously for Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who won a primary where many had written her off. He helped Mark Critz win a special House election in Pennsylvania that Republicans should have taken easily. In Colorado, his endorsement of Andrew Romanoff in the Democratic Senate primary helped turn what had looked to be an easy race for the incumbent, Michael Bennet, into a tight one -- much to the chagrin of the White House, which had put its support behind Bennet [Disclosure: Bennet is the brother of the Atlantic's editor, James Bennet]. He's also endorsed Libby Mitchell in Maine, Frank Caprio in Rhode Island, and will soon return to Massachusetts on behalf of Representative Richard Neal. Clinton's appeal is neither regional nor specific to Democrats. In July, according to Gallup, his favorable rating exceeded Obama's for the first time.
This resurgence is all the more striking because Clinton's image took a beating in 2008, when many Democrats, including Obama staffers and members of Congress, denounced his attacks on Obama as racist -- charges that split the party and that Clinton himself bitterly denied. He appears to have overcome this, but without quite forgetting it, either. What all the candidates he has endorsed have in common is that they were early supporters of Hillary Clinton's bid for the presidential nomination.
Clinton also seems to be quietly making a point about race. He stumped for Blanche Lincoln in the predominantly black regions of Arkansas, and endorsed Kendrick Meek, a rising African American star, in Florida's Democratic Senate primary, even though (or maybe especially because) both had been snubbed by Obama. It's worth noting, too, that Clinton has not campaigned for candidates like Robin Carnahan in Missouri, who could use his support, but didn't lend theirs to his wife.
There are enough Democrats in need of help that Clinton and Obama could divvy them up according to loyalty and still not get to everyone. But there are also a number of close races, especially in rural conservative districts, where Clinton could make a difference and Obama probably could not. Nor has it been lost on the candidates or their handlers that the eventful post-presidency of Bill Clinton has taken another interesting turn.
''As the supersurrogate for Democrats,'' said a party veteran with ties to both administrations, ''President Clinton has achieved his maximum cruising altitude on a long, occasionally turbulent, but ultimately safe and comfortable flight. President Obama is still taxiing.''
It's hardly surprising that a president stands to play a commanding role in the fall campaign. But who would have guessed it might not be Barack Obama, but Bill Clinton?
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.
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