Is Bill Clinton too big to help Hillary become president?

It’s a real problem, if you listen to some of the so-called experts out there. The papers are full of blind quotes from old Gore and Kerry aides about how the former president’s strengths are a negative for anyone he’s trying to help. He speaks too well, sounds too good, takes up too much space.


Gore didn’t want Clinton’s help, and if you read the academic studies, including one led by the respected Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, it cost him valuable points that would have meant the difference between victory and defeat.

Kerry didn’t listen to the advice Clinton tried to relay even from his sickbed (stop talking so much about Vietnam), and would’ve done better if he had.

If Bill Clinton is too big to help you, it’s because you’re too small to be president. If you can’t share a podium with a man of his stature, you don’t have the stature to be president. That was Gore’s problem in 2000, and Kerry’s in 2004, with all due respect.

It is not Hillary’s problem.

Her husband complements her; he doesn’t compete with her. And she doesn’t need to compete with him, as some of our former nominees felt they needed to do.

Let’s start with some basics. Bill Clinton is the best strategist in either party. He understands politics the way Einstein did science. He can see both the forest and the trees at the same time. He can go congressional district by congressional district in Ohio with you, telling you what’s going on in each of them, why he carried this one and Kerry didn’t, what voting bloc (say white married women) made the difference, and then, in the next minute, turn to the world situation and discuss what needs to happen in the Middle East, and then back to why a Democrat should be able to carry Florida.

Twenty years ago, when he was still a relatively unknown governor and I was struggling with a very difficult presidential campaign, he was my first and last call every day. He understood the numbers, what they meant and what we needed to ask the next night better than anyone I’d ever met in my life, including our very talented pollsters. If you don’t think this kind of talent matters, particularly in primary campaigns, which defy many rules of logic, you’ve never been in one.

Bill Clinton is also an amazing fundraiser. Sure, Sen. Barack Obama apparently has raised more than Hillary this quarter (my guess is because more people who support Hillary are willing to also give to Obama than the other way around, and because he’s developed a larger base of small donors, whom you can hit up over and over), but both of them have more than enough to make this run. And as candidate time becomes more and more precious, particularly as we get closer to the contests in states that are not great sources of funds (for instance, Iowa and New Hampshire), there is nothing like having a spouse who can draw in the dollars on their own. I think the world of Michelle Obama, as well as Elizabeth Edwards, but neither can pack them in and empty their pockets with the skill, experience or finesse of the former president.

Then there’s the matter of experience. I saw a story today describing Elizabeth Edwards as her husband’s closest adviser. I think that’s great, but it doesn’t make me feel more secure about the prospects for peace in the Middle East or the war against terrorism or how we extricate ourselves from Iraq. With all due respect, my guess is Elizabeth, and Michelle Obama for that matter, don’t know much more about those subjects than I do, which is enough to answer questions on television, but substantially less than Bill Clinton knows.

No, this isn’t the old “two for one.” If Hillary is elected, Hillary will be president. But knowing that her closest adviser is someone who himself has been there and done that and earned America the respect of the world is bound to be a positive, particularly with those voters who still have their doubts, spoken or not, about a woman as commander in chief.

But what about Clinton fatigue? What about all the Clinton haters out there? Yes, they are there, and they send me things all the time. Today’s missive was a list of people whose deaths they connected to Bill Clinton, from Barbara Olsen, who died on 9/11, to former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who died in a plane crash, to my old friend Paul Tully, who died in 1992 of a heart attack that we’d all been warning him about for years. The more they yell, the more ridiculous they look. And they are far outnumbered by those who remember the Clinton years as a time of peace and prosperity, when the Republicans tied up the House and Senate discussing the president’s personal life. Those were the days.

Susan Estrich is a syndicated columnist and author.