Super Surrogate

On Tuesday morning, the day after her riveting tussle at the Myrtle Beach debate with Barack Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton held a brief press conference in Washington, ostensibly to respond to plunging global markets and offer her ideas about how to turn around the domestic economy.

But the national media was less interested in the fiscal crisis at home than the debate fracas of the previous night, and the increasing public role of her husband, former President Bill Clinton. The first questioner asked her if it was appropriate for President Clinton, as putative head of the party, to insert himself so emphatically into the 2008 Democratic nomination contest.

"I think on both sides our surrogates are obviously out there advocating for each of us," replied Mrs. Clinton, referring to her and Sen. Obama's campaigns. "But this is between us -- this is who's on the ballot, this is who's presenting our case to the public. And I think that last night you saw a lot of contrast." Whatever contrast there is between her, Obama and John Edwards, a much deeper contrast is found among the three candidates' spouses, especially hers, for whom there is simply no contemporary or historical precedent.

***

The day after Hillary's press conference, super surrogate husband Bill Clinton arrived in Kingstree, South Carolina -- a rural town of fewer than 4,000 people with a median household income less than half the statewide average -- for the second of three appearances that day on behalf of her candidacy. The local party chairwoman introduced Clinton to the mostly African-American audience of about 250 crammed into a small auditorium at the Williamsburg County Recreational Center as "the husband of Hillary Clinton, the father of Chelsea, and one bad saxophone-playing dude."

Just three minutes into his remarks, the forty-second president of the United States quickly turned the conversation to Monday night's debate. "How many of you saw the debate the other night?" he asked. "I liked it better when they sat down and cooled down, myself. When Sen. Obama and Hillary argue, that's just a normal part of politics. It would be unusual if it never happened, and I think it's important not to overreact to it when people have differences."

In a further attempt to defuse some of the tensions created by his recent and highly-controversial remarks about Obama, Clinton then added this little aw-shucks gem: "I can say this because I'm older now and because I can't run for anything anymore. When you are no longer in office, the good thing is you can say whatever is on your mind. The sad thing is that nobody cares what you think anymore." Bill's proclamation of irrelevance was issued on a day when the press pool following the non-candidate former president across the Palmetto State was larger than the one trailing John Edwards, a state native who actually is running for president.

So there you have it: According to Hillary Clinton, Michele Obama, Elizabeth Edwards and Bill Clinton are just three spouses doing what spousal surrogates do, their mundane roles and political impact nothing unusual and virtually indistinguishable from one another. And, according to Bill, no matter how passionate, talented or unusual it may be for him as a former president to act as surrogate, nobody really cares what he has to say anyway.

Surrogates for the Obama campaign are fed up with the former president's meddling. During a conference call with reporters Thursday, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill let the Big Dog know how she feels about him leaping off the porch and into the race. "Let me say this: I do not begrudge Bill Clinton for working for his wife … [W]e'd all be shocked if he weren't working and using his really incredible skill as a politician on her behalf,” said McCaskill. "But the one thing I would say that I think is really important for President Clinton to think about right now, is that because of the larger microphone that he has as a former president, he needs to be very careful with the truth … But the fact that he has shaded things and he has tried to manipulate the facts in a way that is unfair -- I think that is frankly flat wrong and I think it is demeaning."

***

Team Obama’s frustration derives from a painful truth: Bill Clinton is an electoral powerhouse, a surrogate nonpareil. And what makes him particularly impressive is that he is not only a certifiable celebrity, but one whose command over policy issues generally -- and his wife's platform specifically -- gives his stump appearances a substantiveness that few spouses can deliver. The compelling and impressive biographies of Michele Obama or Elizabeth Edwards notwithstanding, there simply has never been a spousal surrogate of Bill Clinton's caliber in the history of presidential politics.

In Kingstree, for example, Bill Clinton fielded often highly-specific questions from audience members on community block grants, No Child Left Behind, health insurance, Social Security, enterprise zones and rural broadband, among other topics. I timed two of Clinton's replies to such questions at longer than eight minutes each, and in neither case was he digressing into story-telling or offering gauzy generics. It took a woman inquiring about whether Hillary's health care proposal specifically covers chiropractic care to stump the encyclopedic Clinton.

"I try not to answer a question if I don't know, but I know her position on just about everything," he told the woman. He proceeded to tell her that he personally believed chiropractic care ought to be covered, and said he would make sure a campaign staffer took down her contact information after the event so that somebody could follow-up later with an exact answer. At her own events, Hillary Clinton often fields as many as two dozen policy questions. Whatever else might be said of the Clintons, they are not relying on their name brand and celebrity alone.

Clinton makes the case for his wife's candidacy by emphasizing three points. First, he says government "needs to get back into the solutions business" and that Hillary has "the longest and best record at making positive changes in other people's lives." He boasts, second, that she has a demonstrated record of passing legislation, especially when it requires joining forces with Republicans to get things done.

Finally, he encourages people to look for a candidate who will be resilient in the face of attacks. "I also think it's important to elect someone who will always stay with you when the fire is turned up," says Clinton, in a comment that may, in his mind, double as a selling point and a personal bouquet to a woman who stuck with him during his toughest personal and public moments.

***

"If [Obama] wins this nomination I'm going to do what I can to help him with this election," the former president assured the Kingstree audience, and reiterated Hillary's promise that the Democratic Party will stand unified behind whomever the party nominates. But it's hard to imagine that Bill Clinton in the general election would be as strong a surrogate for Barack Obama as he would be for Hillary Clinton. He's only married to one of them.

Toward the end of the event, Clinton paused to reflect on why it was important to support a candidate who, if elected, won't get caught up in the trappings of the Oval Office but instead focus on doing what's best for the nation and its people. "If you're not careful, and you become president, you can get to thinking you're somebody," he said, causing the crowd to laugh.

You can bet that Hillary Clinton is counting on the fact that, even without the powers and trappings of the presidency, Bill Clinton is still a major somebody.

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