Primary Focus

When Bill Clinton left the White House in 2001, a lot of people predicted that he would have a hard time making the transition from being the most powerful man in the world to being a former most powerful man in the world. They were right.

Clinton may have faded from view right after George W. Bush took office, but now he's re-emerging on the national scene. (So is his wife, but I'll get to that in a minute.) He was recently interviewed at length by James Fallows in The Atlantic Monthly and appeared on Larry King Live and the Today Show, among other outlets. He and his 1996 opponent, former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), debuted their point-counterpoint segment on 60 Minutes last night.

The decision by 60 Minutes producers to run the Clinton-Dole segment is a strange one. It's not strange for Clinton and Dole, who stand to make a small fortune for their spots. But will viewers really care what they have to say about issues? The 1996 campaign wasn't exactly a nail-biter, nor were the Clinton-Dole exchanges a presidential version of the Lincoln-Douglass debates. And because both their wives currently hold office as senators, I'd rather hear what they have to say.

It's a sad state of affairs for the Democrats when their biggest figure is no longer a candidate for office. Clinton loomed over the 2000 race -- Al Gore couldn't decide whether to use the sitting president on the campaign trail or shun him, one of the Gore campaign's many problems -- and he's likely to overshadow the 2004 race as well. His book should hit stores next year, which will land him on numerous TV talk shows. And if he keeps speaking out on the party, the war and some individual candidates (as he did in the Fallows interview), it's going to be hard to ignore him. Who has more star power, Bill Clinton or Howard Dean? It's a no-brainer.

That may be what Clinton wants, but it's not good for a party that needs a fresh face if it's to have any shot of winning next year. We need a chance to meet the new candidates, to feel like we're free of the past. Yes, the 1990s were the glory days for Democrats: We briefly controlled the presidency, the House and the Senate -- and now we don't control any of them. To be sure, Clinton should keep his role as the party's elder statesman and offer candidates behind-the-scenes advice. But staying behind the scenes has never been Clinton's strong point.

The problem is, who's going to be the one to tell Bill Clinton that -- in the words of his 1992 campaign theme song -- "yesterday's gone, yesterday's gone"? His dominance of the party continues through Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and his wife, who has recently been assuming a higher public profile (likely in preparation for the 2008 election). She has been helping to establish a liberal think tank, won a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and is proving herself a powerful fundraiser for other candidates. And she, too, has a book coming out in the next two years. The hordes of camera crews that followed Hillary around in her first weeks as a senator may have disappeared -- but she'll never be just one of 100.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that if Hillary Clinton ran for the White House next year, she'd have the support of 42 percent of Democrats -- nearly three times as many as would support the next strongest candidate, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). That may be good news for her but it's bad news for those seeking the White House in 2004. Hillary has vowed not to run next year, which was the correct decision for both her and the party; after all, the same poll showed that Bush would trounce her. The fact that Hillary's name keeps coming up when she insists she's not running is partly because the list of people running is so uninspiring. But how are voters going to get inspired if Democrats continue to allow the Clintons -- husband and wife -- to loom over the election?

When the 2004 convention is held in Boston, we can only hope that Bill Clinton doesn't make the kind of rock star entrance he made in 2000. He towered over Gore in terms of charisma and popularity. Just like Clinton had a Sister Souljah moment with Jesse Jackson in 1992, maybe the next nominee needs to have a Clinton moment, one where he says, "Yes, we want you in the party but, no, you can't outshine the candidate." Of course, if Hillary runs in 2008, she'd face a similar problem. At least then they can work it out in the family.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.

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