The American public might be sold on two Clintons in the White House West Wing rather than just one. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton might being looking to relive the 1990s in reverse as she alluded she might be looking to give her husband former President Bill Clinton some prime West Wing real estate if she wins the 2016 presidential election. Clinton discussed the possibility in the premiere of MSNBC’s “MTP Daily,” hosted by Chuck Todd, which aired on Monday, Sept. 28, 2015. Clinton’s comments come just as Bill plans to take a larger role in his wife’s campaign and spend the fall hitting the trail to help boost Hillary’s troubled campaign. The former president’s return to the campaign trail and Hillary’s recent remarks are bound to give the American public flashback of the Clintons’ first co-presidency and their unsuccessful campaign for a second go in 2008. Already it seems Hillary has forgotten the lessons of the past and is ready to make the same mistakes all over again.
Todd asked Clinton about the role the former president might play in her future administration, asking specifically if he would be given an office in the West Wing. Clinton in usual fashion was evasive in her response, saying, “He’s a pretty busy guy, I don’t know anything like that.” Clinton continued by acting humble about her chances of winning the election, “I’m not counting my chickens before they hatch. I just want to be sure that we get the chance to earn the votes of the American people and to win the White House back.”
Clinton however, admitted that Bill would be a “great adviser,” because he “knows as much about the economy and how to get jobs created and how to help people see their incomes rise as anybody that I could talk to.” The former first lady, New York Senator, 2008 presidential candidate, and Secretary of State would not respond about what kind of role the former president would play in her administration.
This is not the first time even this campaign that Clinton has alluded to a much grander role for the former president the being the first “first gentleman.” Just earlier this month Hillary appeared on the entertainment news show “Extra” where they asked her if she considered Bill as her running mate. Clinton laughed at the question about the former president serving as her Vice President. Clinton responded, “He would be good, but he’s not eligible.”
Hillary mentioned that the Constitution would not legally allow for him to run with her, but she did consider the possibility. Clinton commented, “Under the Constitution, he has served his two terms. And I think the argument would be, as vice president, it would not be possible for him to ever succeed to the position, at least that’s what I’ve been told. So you know, it has crossed my mind.”
Clinton might be repeating history making the same mistakes the Clintons made in the 1990s and Clinton made her first unsuccessful presidential run in 2008. The Clintons had been a partnership from the start of their marriage, and the political partnership was an important part of his years as Governor of Arkansas, through the 1992 presidential campaign where Hillary took unprecedented roles, with staff mirroring her husband’s.
Fast forward to 2007, the conservative legal advocacy group Judicial Watch mounted lawsuits to make public White House documents showing a Clinton co-presidency. Judicial Watch is at the center the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuits against the State Department to get all of Clinton emails released and made available to the public as Secretary of State. After a legal battle between the group and the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, the library released Hillary’s calendars and schedules during Clinton’s presidency.
The documents prove Hillary took on a significant role in the White House early in Clinton’s presidency especially 1993 his first year in office, and then in Clinton reelection campaign in 1996. Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton explained, “The documents, from 1993 at least, seem to confirm her role as co-president, in meeting with cabinet officials and in policy discussions,” and “The 1996 documents show her participating in a lot of fundraising and political meetings.” The paper trail of Hillary’s involvement in policy, as a co-president is surprising considering how Clinton tried to ensure there was no record.
In her 2008 campaign for the Democratic nomination, Clinton tried to sell partially her experience during her husband’s presidency to show she was more qualified than then her then opponent Barack Obama, who went on to win the election. Clinton’s 2008 campaign spokesman Jay Carson, commented at the time that “The schedules do help illustrate Hillary Clinton’s extensive and exhaustive work as a public servant and her role as an influential advocate at home and around the world on behalf of our country. As such, they are a valuable addition to the substantive and vast public record already made available by President Clinton.”
This would be the third campaign the Clintons sold themselves as a team, in Bill Clinton’s first successful run for president in 1992, Clinton often joked on the campaign trail that voters would be getting “two for the price of one,” if they vote for him. In a Vanity Fair article from 1992, Bill Clinton was quoted as saying, “If I get elected president, it will be an unprecedented partnership, far more than Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor. They were two great people, but on different tracks. If I get elected, we’ll do things together like we always have.”
Hillary often used the word “we” on the campaign trail, about what both her and Bill would accomplish together in the White House. Her sales pitch of essentially a co-presidency led many especially conservatives to call her Lady Macbeth, which all started with Daniel Wattenberg’s August 1992 The American Spectator article “The Lady Macbeth of Little Rock,” while the media also started to refer to them as “Billary.”
It was true, the early years of Clinton’s first term were essentially a co-presidency, and Hillary had a major role in both the presidential transition. The first lady had a West Wing office in addition to usual first lady offices in the East Wing; she was essentially another advisor to the president, but with more power and influence, than even Vice President Al Gore. The most major decision-making process involved, Bill, Hillary, and a lesser extent Gore, who was promised a more central role as Vice President but was side-stepped.
During the transition she vetted the appointment of positions, and was the decision maker in many upper and lower level posts, having more power than official transition head Warren Christopher. Carl Bernstein writes in his book “A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton,” “Hillary would perform the same role-formulating policy ideas and reviewing candidates for her husband’s staff-that she would play during his transition from president-elect to president, with disastrous consequences.” (p. 61) William H. Chafe quoting Stephen Hess in his book “Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal” writes, that it was “worst [presidential] transition in modern history.” (p. 154)
Hillary Clinton continued to be the secondary decision maker on all issues and attending cabinet meetings, but also were more negative including screaming at staffers. Bernstein describes the problems that caused, writing, “It would be difficult to overstate the chaos of the first one hundred days of the Clinton presidency.” Clinton ran amok making decisions that were a hindrance to new administration, but was only allowed because of her position as wife of the president. Even then, Clinton advisor David Gergen later expressed, “No matter how talented, two people cannot occupy that space, jointly making decisions. There is no place for a co-presidency.” (Nigel Hamilton, Bill Clinton: Mastering the Presidency. New York: PublicAffairs, 2007. p. 135)
Hillary won the major duty to head the Task Force on National Health Care Reform over from Vice President Gore, who would have been more experienced to do so. Hillary refused to compromise, and the budget went out of control for the plan, which required a “mandate” that employers to provide health insurance for their employees. Clinton had campaigned on providing universal health care for all Americans and it was important to his first term agenda.
The proposal fell flat to Congress, who was still in Democratic hands; it faced opposition from both Democrats and especially Republicans. The project became too associated with the rogue First Lady that it became called Hillarycare. After Bill’s joint address to Congress, Hillary testifying at Congressional hearings, and 1,000 plus page proposal, the Health Security Act failed to pass Congress in 1994. The bill’s failure to pass, White House Counsel Vince Foster’s suicide over travelgate, and the subsequent losses of control of Congress to the Republicans put an official public end to the first round of the Clinton co-presidency.
The 1994 midterm became a referendum on the Clinton’s health care failure and the big government. The blame should have been squarely on Hilary’s, but the president would not allow it. As Sally Bedell Smith noted in her book, “For Love of Politics Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years,” “With his eye fixed firmly on Hillary’s future in politics, Bill [has] repeatedly insisted over the years that she was not at fault for the failure of health care.” (p. 168) Later Bill would admit the healthcare failure “were my mistakes…. I don’t think these had anything to do with her being involved in it…. I just think it’s wrong to put it on her.” (p. 168) Still Bernstein says Hillary was to blame for “the unprecedented disarray of the early Clinton presidency.”
Afterward publicly Hillary took on a more traditional First Lady role, minimizing to the public’s persona of the co-president. The first lady continued with the co-presidency, but within the confines of the traditional role, and she continued to act as co-president behind the scenes. At first, the Clinton’s ran a concurrent covert co-presidency with the help of political consultant Dick Morris in the evening tricking the White House staffers leaving no physical trace. Morris, however, determined through polling just how much damage Hillary was doing to the administration, and becoming a “liability.”
Author and conservative commentator Stanley Kurtz pointed out in his essay, “Déjà Two,” that Clinton went underground, “From the budget, to Bosnia, cabinet appointments, speech-writing, and welfare reform, Hillary’s influence was unrivaled. Her power had merely been driven further behind the scenes.” She turned her attention to education, childcare and women’s issues keeping her influential and in the limelight in ways that increased her popularity and made her admired by the American public. On the foreign policy front, Hillary became the most travelled first lady visiting 79 countries, and making a significant mark with her speech to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in September 1995.
Hillary served beneficial in President Clinton’s reelection, but the second term was entirely consumed by the Clintons various scandals. The Whitewater investigations, the sex scandals, the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit culminated in the president’s inappropriate affair with the 21-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s discovery of Clinton’s perjury and requesting others including Lewinsky to do the same in the Jones lawsuit depositions.
When the media revealed the Lewinsky affair to the public, the Clintons spent the entire 1998 year consumed by the scandal and subsequent House impeachment proceedings. The first lady again took over the public co-presidency as the president chief defender. Hillary became a hero to the American public, for her strength during the scandal. Hillary parlayed the sympathy of the wife wronged to a US Senate victory in New York. At that point, the Clintons’ political aspirations shifted to Hillary’s presidential aspirations, as Kurtz notes, their “power-sharing arrangement continues.”
The co-presidency continued through Bill’s presidency, but selling that strategy was unsuccessful in Hillary’s first presidential campaign in 2008. In 2008, the roles were reversed with Bill taking over the spot Hillary had first been in 1992. At first, Hillary tried to keep Bill out of the campaign fearing his oversized persona “would overshadow” her, which he did. The American public preferred Bill to Hillary, and co-presidency immediately became both an issue and selling point.
After all these years they decided to embrace and admit Bill Clinton’s presidency was a co-presidency, emphasizing Hillary’s time as the first lady as a co-presidency experience and part her record as well, with Bill talking about “we” on the campaign field. Again, the Clintons tried to sell a “two-for-one” presidency, a “package.” Unofficial campaign bumper stickers saying, “Vote Hill, Get Bill” popped up. A Washington Post article from December 2007 entitled “Hillary Clinton Embraces Her Husband’s Legacy” examined how with Hillary’s 2008 campaign blurred the line. The article claimed she ran on her husband’s record, he sold her as part of his presidency’s team, but he was also trying to sell himself to American voters, and redemption for his past scandal.
Letting the former president loose on the campaign trail proved problematic, to say the least; his criticism of Obama in South Carolina backfired, an appearance in an Iowa grocery, made Hillary look ridiculous in the press. The former president went “off script” with the press, quite quickly he became the focus and Hillary lost in the shuffle to the detriment of her campaign. Soon there were behind the scene fights that could not be resolved, while disapproval grew from the public.
The Clintons’ strategy of promoting a co-presidency record, looking back to the 1990s and the strong economy failed. Obama’s campaigning to “turn the page” on the Clinton era and their baggage and scandal-riddled past proved to resonate more with the American public. As her campaign stumbled before the Iowa caucus, Clinton tried to quell concern about a co-presidency, promising that the former president would have no “formal official role” in her administration, but “he will be my close confidant and advisor, as I was with him.” The former president’s own remarks did nothing to stop fuelling the fire going on NBC’s the Today Show admitting that advising is something “we’ve always done for each other,” and that he would “be available for whatever specific assignments that seem right.”
After Bill attacked him in South Carolina, Obama used the specter of the co-presidency against the Clintons, saying, “I can’t tell who I’m running against sometimes.” The comment was enough to put the media in a frenzy about the Clintons pulling a co-presidency yet again over the American public. Gail Collins told the New York Times, “we’re being offered the worst-case scenario-that the pair of them are going to return to Pennsylvania Avenue and re-create the old Clinton chaos.” While Newsweek was more blunt calling a Hillary presidency “an unelected, unofficial, but nonetheless true co-presidency.” The American public was not ready to relive the Clinton’s muddied and conflicting co-presidency, and it was partially to blame for her losing the Democratic nomination.
As Kurz indicated the co-presidency “results were disastrous, and are likely to be so again should the Clintons once more attempt to adapt their power-sharing arrangement to an American presidency expressly designed to exclude what the founders called a ‘plural executive.'” Hillary is setting herself up again for the disaster of selling a co-presidency. Up until now, she has tried to avoid her husband’s presidential record and kept him away from the campaign trail. The minute Clinton made her official campaign launch on Roosevelt Island in New York on June 13, 2015, USA Today was quick to bring up the Clinton co-presidency package deal. The publication wrote, “As in 2008, she must convince voters that another Clinton in the White House – make that two Clintons – is a good thing.”
Hillary’s ongoing scandal over the private email server she used as Secretary of State has affected her campaign. The Democratic frontrunner is seeing her poll numbers shrink with each poll, the investigation is heating up and expanding. Hillary needs a boost to her campaign especially if Vice President Joe Biden decides to enter the race. The campaign’s solution brings back the most popular former president, Bill Clinton, who still has a 64 percent post-presidential favorable rating even after all the scandals nearly twenty points more than Hillary.
In the few days however, that that the former president has been on the campaign trail, he has already gone rogue abandoning the script, evoking the Clintons favorite Republican conspiracies, three times in two interviews with CNN, requiring Hillary to go on defending his remarks. In the short time, Bill has returned to campaigning for his wife, the conversation has already shifted from Hillary to Bill. Although Hillary may want to down play the kind of first gentleman role the former president will play, but the conversation always goes back to a co-presidency; whether it be the impossible choosing him as a running mate to the more practical office space in the West Wing.
The more Bill Clinton raises his profile in Hillary’s campaign, the more she will sink in the backdrop yet again the co-presidency is raised. How her scandal unfolds, and the public’s perception of a co-presidency possibility changed eight years after her 2008 campaign and 22 years after Bill’s first presidential victory will affect her 2016 election dreams. Maybe, however, as Kurtz concluded, “A Hillary Clinton White House might adhere to the letter of the law, but a de facto second Clinton co-presidency would, like the first, violate both the spirit and the sound sense of the Constitution. Buy one, get two-but at far too high a price.”