Was Bill Clinton smart to pick a fight with the White House?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 6 2007 6:02 PM

Clinton vs. Bush

Was it smart for Bill Clinton to pick a fight with the White House over Scooter Libby?

Scooter Libby. Click image to expand.
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby 

When Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich at the end of his term, about-to-be- President Bush and his aides didn't make a huge stink. Maybe Bush figured that one day he'd need to defend his own pardons. Maybe he didn't want to start off with a drawn-out political fight. Or maybe he wanted to skirt the inconvenient fact that Scooter Libby, known only at the time as the vice president's chief of staff with the quirky name, was Rich's lawyer.

Now the White House is happy to talk about the Clinton pardon, especially since the former president criticized Bush's decision to commute Scooter Libby's sentence. White House spokesman Tony Snow reacted by saying Clinton had extraordinary chutzpah to make such a claim, given his actions with Rich. Snow also mentioned Clinton's record in an op-ed in USA Today defending Bush's decision.

For Democrats, this little episode highlights the promise and peril of a Hillary Clinton presidency. On the one hand, President Clinton spoke for many in the party who are furious about the Libby decision. As Hillary Clinton's team is quick to point out, she and her husband know how to fight. This is proof of it. On the other hand, Clinton has given the White House and Republicans an opportunity to muddy the issue by dredging up his past. Whatever you may think about the merits of the Rich pardon versus the Libby commutation, the debate is one the Bush team wants. The White House would rather have everyone debating the relative merits of the two than debating the inconsistencies in the Libby decision alone.

If Hillary Clinton is elected president, how often will this phenomenon be repeated? With each piece of legislation Hillary Clinton proposes or each assertion she makes, Republicans will offer an analog from the Clinton years. They'd do the same with any Democratic president, of course, but another Democratic president would have an easier time walking away from such attacks. The Clintons will be compelled to answer them. In some cases, Hillary Clinton's administration would be able to dispatch with these predictable attacks. In other cases, the comparison will favor the Clintons. The question for Democrats is how much of this friction they will want in the machine in the next Democratic administration.

Where Democrats come down on this question is very important to Barack Obama, who is trying to use Bill Clinton to paint Hillary as a woman of the past. Talking about Clinton, Obama said the country needed to move past the "harsh partisanship and old arguments." Though Obama shares the Clintons' view about Libby, his campaign is happy enough for the Rich reminder. It beats talking about the balanced budgets and economic prosperity of the Clinton years. That was supposed to be what Bill and Hillary Clinton reminded voters of this week in their maiden voyage together on the campaign trail, not the rough episodes.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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