A Double-Edged Crusader

Former President Bill Clinton speaks to a crowd at the Sumter County Exhibition Center in Sumter, S.C. on behalf of his wife Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Monday, Dec. 17, 2007.
This analysis was written by U.S. News & World Report columnist Gloria Borger.

As a woman candidate, it's generally not a great visual to have your husband ride to the rescue to perk up your sagging campaign. On the other hand, if you're running for president -- and your spouse happens to be a popular ex-president -- the optics might be a bit more appealing. Consider the cheerful Bill Clinton, extolling the virtues of his wife to PBS's Charlie Rose recently: "If I had never been married to Hillary, but I had known her all these 36 years, and she asked me to be doing this for her campaigning, I would do it in a heartbeat." Hillary Clinton, he declared, "will be the best president."

OK, fine. But then Clinton goes on, as he often does. The conversation with Rose takes a dark turn, into the land of the knives. After first describing Barack Obama as "a person of enormous talent, [with] staggering political skills," Clinton moves in for the soft kill. Electing Obama is a "roll of the dice," he says. "I mean, when is the last time we elected a president based on one year of service in the Senate before he started running?" Ouch. Hillary Clinton's spousal surrogate is now her honorary hatchet man.

But wait. Isn't this Alice Through the Looking Glass? Isn't Clinton the same fellow who had to defend his own lack of experience when running against George H. W. Bush in 1992? "We simply cannot take the risk on Governor Clinton," intoned Bush the Elder. And the young governor defended his own experience as "rooted in the real lives of real people, and it will bring real results if we have the courage to change." So last decade's change agent is now Mister Risk-averse. Funny how that can happen.

In the best Clintonian tradition, the former president has decided his wife can be all things: old school and ready to change the world. That's not an easy turn, even for the Clintons. First, there's the need for the campaign to transform Hillary the Inevitable (all but running as an incumbent) into Hillary the Hustler, scrambling and scrapping -- sweetly -- for every vote. As she does that, she needs to morph from an insider into an outsider. To say the least, there are some conceptual problems with that construct. Here's Bill Clinton's best effort: "If you believe the past record as an agent of positive change is a good indicator of the future performance, I don't think it's close who would be most likely to do the most good in the least amount of time." Get the fellow an easy button.

If the message seems convoluted and contrived, that's because it is. After all, it strains credulity to assume that the consummate insider would be the best person to bring about change. But beyond that, there's something else going on here. Clinton is struggling because Democratic voters are beginning to show some leg, letting their hopes and dreams out of the box. They understand that Hillary Clinton is smart and experienced. They even think she's tough (which, for a woman, is no small feat). But they're not sure they like her enough to trust her with their highest aspirations. Why settle for competency when they want inspiration? Why settle for tested when they yearn for someone transformative? Bill Clinton calls Obama a "highly intelligent symbol of transformation." If he wins, he's no symbol.

Not timid. Democrats looking at the two candidates do not need Bill Clinton to tell them about the risks of Obama. He's young, largely inexperienced in the ways of Washington, and not particularly distinguished as a Senate legislator. There's a big chance he could lose to a sharp and more battle-tested Republican candidate. (In a recent debate, Obama confided that one of his New Year's resolutions was "not to be timid.") And even if he were to win, there's the worry that while Democrats might want to be voting for another John F. Kennedy, they could wind up electing another Jimmy Carter. All of that fear is there, and with good reason.

With Hillary Clinton, you know what you're getting: a figher, as she tells us, who's "in it to win it." A woman who coined the "right-wing conspiracy" as a way to define -- and defeat -- her enemies in the midst of her husband's darkest hours. And the wife (and political partner) of Bill Clinton, for better and worse. With Barack Obama, what you will get is less certain. As one Democratic strategist put it, in a mixture of hope and realism, "you're buying a lottery ticket." And every once in a while, the payoff can be huge.

By Gloria Borger