It took a while--for the duration of the Iowa
campaign, to be exact--but the Clintons
have figured out the most productive way to use former President Bill Clinton
in Hillary Clinton's campaign. Their division of labor is very simple: he
criticizes Barack Obama while she mostly stays positive. It worked in New Hampshire and again in Nevada.
What didn't work was having Bill campaign with Hillary, speaking before his
wife at events and introducing her. That was tried earlier in Iowa and of course she lost the caucuses
there in what feels like an eternity ago but was actually only three weeks ago.
At joint events, he overshadowed her and spent much of his time talking about
himself. This prompted a newspaper cartoon with a tiny Hillary standing on the
shoulder of a huge Bill. Now they appear separately.
And they seem to understand Bill's unique value in the campaign. As an
ex-president he can command extensive media attention. What he says gets
widespread coverage. In effect, he has a megaphone as big as his wife's, maybe
bigger. No other presidential candidate has a surrogate like Bill Clinton.
Obama certainly doesn't.
When every candidate except Hillary wants to put out unfavorable information
about an opponent and be sure to draw heavy press coverage, the candidate
himself must handle the task. And there's a downside: the candidate is deplored
for "going negative." But if an aide or supporter is assigned the
task, the media is likely to yawn and the information the candidate wants to trumpet
gets far less coverage.
But not in Bill Clinton's case. He's the one supporter of a candidate whose
words are reported to the world under blazing headlines. Thus when he
criticizes Obama on Iraq and
other issues, as he did in New
Hampshire, we hear about it. And when he scolds the
press for giving Obama a free ride, we not only hear about it but the press
takes the criticism seriously.
after two union endorsements of Obama put Hillary's expected victory in the
Democratic caucuses in jeopardy, Bill waded in again. He denounced the way the
caucuses were set up as undemocratic and unfair. Later, he repeated charges
that Hillary voters were being threatened into voting for Obama. Once more, the
coverage of Bill was big-time.
Bill Clinton does another thing for Hillary's campaign--respond to criticism
of her. When her experience as a major White House player has been questioned,
Bill has stepped in to defend her. He should know, right? He was president.
Without a surrogate like Bill, Obama is at a disadvantage. He's been wary of
responding to charges and criticism by Bill and other Hillary backers because
it would detract from the positive tone of his candidacy. For the same reason,
he's been reluctant to go after Hillary himself. Obama's strategy has been to
stay above the fray as much as possible.
Now he doesn't have that luxury. To counter attacks by the Clinton camp effectively, Obama will have to
step forward himself and respond. And if he wants to be sure voters hear about
Hillary's shortcomings, he's the one who will have to point to them. What Bill
does for Hillary, Obama must do for himself.