Why Bill Clinton Is Such a Lousy Surrogate

A campaign blog.
Sept. 24 2008 5:20 PM

Why Bill Clinton Is Such a Lousy Surrogate

Bill Clinton praised a presidential candidate yesterday. "The American people, for good and sufficient reasons, admire him," Clinton said on The View . "He’s given something in life the rest of us can’t match." The problem: He was talking about John McCain.

[UPDATE, Sept. 25: Clinton can't help himself: He praised McCain again today, telling Good Morning America that he understands why McCain wants to delay Friday's debate. ""We know he didn't do it because he's afraid, because Sen. McCain wanted more debates," Clinton said . "I presume he didthat in good faith since I know he wanted -- I remember he asked formore debates to go all around the country and so I don't think we oughtto overly parse that."]

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At the Democratic National Convention in August, Clinton promised that he and Hillary would do everything possible to get Barack Obama elected. Since then, he’s been a nonentity on the campaign trail. He just announced plans to visit swing states with Obama next week, but only " after the Jewish holidays ." (Presumably he’ll wait for Yom Kippur, which is Oct. 9, not Sukkot, which ends Oct. 22.) But his presence won’t necessarily be a boon; even when he’s praising Obama, it sounds tepid.

Bill Clinton is one of the best orators and political talents of his generation. So why is he such a lousy surrogate? Some theories:

It’s always about him. Granted, Clinton’s recent TV appearances were geared to promote the Clinton Global Initiative. So he’s excused for talking about himself there. But even questions that aren’t about him become about him. When a View hostess asked him who he thinks is going to win, he answered the question—"I believe Obama will win"—and then segued into praise for McCain. "If it hadn’t been for John McCain, I’m not sure I could have normalized relations with Vietnam," he said. When David Letterman asked him what he thinks about Obama picking Biden over Hillary, he described how "Joe Biden was a great supporter of mine when I was president in stopping the genocide in Bosnia, Kosovo, restoring democracy in Haiti, and a lot of things we did together."

He likes everyone. On Tuesday, Clinton had kind words for the Palin family. "I come from Arkansas. I get why she’s hot out there, why she's doing well," he told reporters. (He added that voters would think, "I'm glad she loves her daughter and she's not ashamed of her. … I like that little Down syndrome kid.") On Larry King Live , he called Palin "gutsy, spirited, and real." As for Obama vs. McCain, "I genuinely like both of them. … We make a terrible mistake believing we have to find something wrong with the people we won’t vote for." And calling Obama a "good candidate" and a "smart man" sounds pretty weak.

He’s too analytical. Clinton likes to play pundit, explaining why he thinks Obama will win instead of why people should vote for him. On the Late Show , he predicted the election would "break Obama’s way." Not because of Obama’s message of hope and change and the American dream, but because of election fundamentals. As he said on The View: "Obama will win for the following reasons: Two-thirds of American people are having trouble paying their bills. America is growing more diverse," racially and demographically. And "registration is up for Democrats, flat for Republicans in 20 of the most important states." Inspiring!

He thinks Hillary deserved to win. Clinton doesn’t have to keep arguing that Hillary won the popular vote , as he did on The View . (She did come close .) He also stopped short of telling Hillary supporters who dislike Obama that they’re wrong. "You can’t tell someone else that ground on which they make their voting decision is irrational," he said. "We can’t tell anybody they don’t know what they’re doing because they vote for candidate X instead of Y." That’s actually a good description of what campaigning is .

He’s determined to be bipartisan. Since 2000, Clinton has tried to live down his reputation as a polarizing force. The Clinton Foundation combats HIV/AIDS and makes a point of reaching out to Republicans. Laura Bush was the keynote speaker at the foundation’s 2006 conference. After a massive tsunami hit Indonesia in 2005, Clinton teamed up with President George H.W. Bush to ask for donations. Sure, he didn’t seem to mind the rough-and-tumble when campaigning for his wife in the primaries, but campaigning for Obama, with all the mud-lobbing going on right now, could complicate his efforts to reburnish his reputation as an elder statesman.

This doesn’t mean that Clinton won’t campaign for Obama or that he won’t be effective. All he needs, to paraphrase a popular political slogan, is a candidate he can believe in.

UPDATE: Clinton can't help himself: He praised McCain again Thursday, telling Good Morning America that he understands why McCain's wants to delay Friday's debate. ""We know he didn't do it because he's afraid, because Sen. McCain wanted more debates," Clinton said . "I presume he did that in good faith since I know he wanted -- I remember he asked for more debates to go all around the country and so I don't think we ought to overly parse that."

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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