Meet Hillary Clinton's New Campaign Weapon — Bill

Dec 21, 2015
Originally published on December 22, 2015 2:23 pm

At a Manchester, N.H., watch party following Saturday's Democratic primary debate, Hillary Clinton stood side by side with the man she called her "not so secret weapon" — her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Voters are about to see much more of him, she said.

"We're going to cover as much ground in New Hampshire as we possibly can," Clinton said. "See as many people, thank everyone who's going to turn out and vote for me to try to get some more to join them."

Bill Clinton said he was "proud" of his wife, and he told New Hampshire voters "we got to be out there every single day" after the New Year.

Family members of candidates are the most valuable validators a politician running for higher office can have. They presumably know the candidate better than anyone. Usually the family member is a child — think Ivanka Trump — or a spouse — a female spouse. This year, voters have seen Donald Trump's wife, Melania, at campaign events. Heidi Cruz is campaigning full throttle for her husband, Ted Cruz. Candy Carson sang the national anthem at a campaign event for her husband, Ben Carson. But on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has a spouse like no other — her husband, otherwise known as former President Bill Clinton.

So far Bill Clinton's appearances on the campaign trail have been confined to cameos — he was the warm-up act for Katy Perry at a rally for Hillary in Des Moines, Iowa, in October, when he put his own twist on the glass ceiling.

"I want to talk about one barrier that has not been broken," the 42nd president said. "I want you to support Hillary for me, too. I want to break a ceiling. I'm tired of the stranglehold that women have had on the job of presidential spouse. I want you to help me deal with that."

Having a former president as a campaign spouse is unprecedented in U.S. politics.

Not only is there no model for a former president as presidential candidate spouse, but Bill Clinton also happens to be preternaturally talented on the stump — one of the best retail politicians of his generation. And voters have fond memories of the Clinton years — peace , prosperity and no big terror attacks.

So far this year, Bill Clinton has been nothing but a plus. He's the subject of warm and fuzzy interviews like this one Hillary Clinton did recently with late night comedian Jimmy Kimmel. The weighty subject — if she becomes president what should HE be called?

HC: Now it's a little bit more complicated with him because people still call former presidents "Mr. President." So I have to really work on this.

JK: I know what you should call it. "The first president lady" would be a nice thing to call him. The first lady doesn't ...

HC: First dude! First mate! First gentleman! I'm just not sure about it.

JK: Does the first lady typically pick out a new China pattern?

HC: Typically, yes.

JK: So would Bill do that? While you're actually in China, will he be selecting it?"

But nothing involving Bill Clinton is ever that simple. He is a huge celebrity and a talented communicator in a class by himself but he also has the potential to overshadow his wife, who is a more pedestrian performer on the stump. Donna Brazile, who was Al Gore's campaign manager, worries about this. Brazile said "one of the most important things he can do in this election cycle is to basically stay out of the way. Let Hillary Clinton make the case for herself. Allow Hillary Clinton to talk about her vision for the country."

The Clinton campaign wants to keep the focus on Hillary and is trying to make it clear that Hillary is not offering a "buy one get one free" deal.

They've learned from bitter experience. During the Democratic primary in 2008, Bill Clinton tried to defend his wife with strident attacks on Barack Obama that backfired .

Clinton's campaign aides say Bill Clinton's role this time around is very clear. He's not involved in the day-to-day campaign but he is a sounding board for Hillary and daily source of advice on what voters are thinking and how best to communicate with them about their concerns.

Bill Clinton remains the most sought-after surrogate in the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign will be using him where and how he can do the most good.

Since the Katy Perry concert in Iowa, Bill Clinton has mostly been out of sight, helping his wife by raising gobs of money in the final push before the end of the quarter finance deadline this month. But after the first of the year, the former president will be back out in public on the campaign trail, trying to help his wife become the first former first lady elected to the White House.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

As the presidential campaign heats up, voters expect to get up close and personal with the candidates and with their spouses. Donald Trump's wife, Melania, has made appearances on the campaign trail. Heidi Cruz is already campaigning full throttle for her husband, Ted. And on the Democratic side, there is one spouse like no other - Hillary Clinton's husband, otherwise known as former President Bill Clinton. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: So far, Bill Clinton's appearances on the campaign trail have been confined to cameos like this one in Des Moines, Iowa, at a rally for Hillary headlined by Katy Perry.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: Thank you very much.

LIASSON: The 42nd president was the warm-up act.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

B. CLINTON: I want you to support Hillary for me, too, because I want to break a ceiling. I am tired of the stranglehold that women have had on the job of presidential spouse.

(APPLAUSE)

B. CLINTON: (Laughing) And I want you to help me deal with that. Look, we're laughing.

LIASSON: Family members of candidates are the most valuable validators in politics. Typically, they're a child or spouse. A female spouse, says Democratic strategist Chris Lehane.

CHRIS LEHANE: This obviously is unprecedented territory when you get a former sitting president and also the first husband to be playing that role. All of that said, you know, he is the most preternaturally talented politician of our lifetime.

LIASSON: Talented and popular. Emmett Sheehan came to the Hillary Clinton rally with his daughter.

EMMETT SHEEHAN: I have my little girl for the weekend, and I had Katy Perry singing for free, so we're down here. But it was actually a super big treat to hear Bill Clinton speak, it was great.

LIASSON: Many voters, like Sheehan, have positive memories of the Clinton years - low employment, a growing economy, no foreign wars or big terrorist attacks. Sheehan was 12 when his parents brought him to a Bill Clinton rally in Des Moines.

SHEEHAN: Oh, I remember it very well. There was people everywhere. It was insane. And then when he came by, he walked, like, 10 feet by me. I was like, whoa, there he is. He's the coolest.

LIASSON: So far this year, Bill Clinton has been nothing but a plus. He's the subject of warm and fuzzy interviews like the one Hillary Clinton did with late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel. The weighty subject? If she becomes president, what should he be called?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE")

HILLARY CLINTON: It's a little bit more complicated with him because people still call former presidents Mr. President.

JIMMY KIMMEL: Right.

H. CLINTON: So I have to really work on this...

KIMMEL: I know what you should call it. The first president lady would be a nice name for him.

H. CLINTON: (Laughter).

KIMMEL: The first lady - doesn't the first lady...

H. CLINTON: The first dude, first mate, first gentleman - I'm just not sure about it.

KIMMEL: Does the first lady typically pick out a new china pattern in the...

H. CLINTON: Typically, yes.

KIMMEL: So would Bill do that? While you're actually in China, will he be selecting it?

LIASSON: But nothing involving Bill Clinton is ever that simple. He is a huge celebrity and a talented communicator in a class by himself, but he has the potential to overshadow his wife, who is a more pedestrian performer on the stump. Donna Brazile was Al Gore's campaign manager.

DONNA BRAZILE: Bill Clinton understands how to communicate effectively, and one of the most important things he can do in this election cycle is to basically stay out of the way. Let Hillary Clinton make the case for herself, allow Hillary Clinton to talk about her vision for the country.

LIASSON: This isn't a buy one, get one free deal, says Brazile. The focus has to stay on Hillary. During the Democratic primary in 2008, Bill Clinton tried to defend his wife, but his strident attacks on Barack Obama backfired. Chris Lehane says that won't happen again with the Clintons.

LEHANE: These are definitely folks - in the business world, they're called reinvestors, meaning people who take lessons, figure out what worked and what maybe did not work as well, and do everything possible to make sure you're focusing on what works well.

LIASSON: At the Clinton campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, Clinton aides are clear about what Bill Clinton's role is and isn't. Communications Director Jen Palmieri says there's a big difference this time around.

JEN PALMIERI: He's not involved in the day-to-day campaigning, but it's incredible to have him around. And obviously, she's someone that he - you know, that she relies on for advice on how voters might be looking at things.

LIASSON: John Podesta was Bill Clinton's White House Chief of Staff. Now, he's Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman.

JOHN PODESTA: He's the most sought-after surrogate for Democrats. You know, there's virtually no one who runs for public office that doesn't ask him to do something for them, and I think the same thing is - holds for our campaign.

LIASSON: Since that Katy Perry concert in Iowa, Bill Clinton's mostly been out of sight, helping his wife by raising money, gobs of money, in the final push before the end-of-the-quarter finance deadline. But after the first of the year, Podesta says, the former president will be back out on the campaign trail, trying to help his wife become the first former first lady elected to the White House. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.