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Ex-President Brings Problems with Power

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Ex-President Brings Problems with Power

Election 2008

Ex-President Brings Problems with Power

Ex-President Brings Problems with Power

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Every presidential candidate tries to enlist surrogates with star power — celebrities or big names that can draw crowds and, they hope, votes.

Mike Huckabee has martial arts star Chuck Norris. Barack Obama has Oprah Winfrey.

But for sheer political celebrity, no one tops Bill Clinton — Hillary Clinton's No. 1 surrogate.

In Muscatine, Iowa, on Tuesday, 500 people crowded into the YMCA gym to hear one of the most popular politicians of his generation make a pitch for his wife.

"You need somebody in that job who is strong, competent, has good plans, a good vision, but never forgets what it's like to be you," Bill Clinton told the crowd. "That's why, if we had never spent a year together as husband and wife, I'd be here for her today if she asked."

Having former President Bill Clinton on your side is a terrific advantage. He draws crowds, raises money and strong-arms endorsements. And among Democrats, Clinton nostalgia overwhelms Clinton fatigue.

Bill Clinton's Cache

"Of course, Bill Clinton is a beloved figure in the Democratic Party," says Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's campaign in 2000.

Brazile says Bill Clinton would be an asset in a general election because Americans with hindsight now give his presidency a 65 percent approval rating.

But Brazile says there's also a downside.

"The risk is simple. People desire change. No one wants to go back down memory lane. The '90s were a great time for America, but this is a new political season. Bill Clinton represents the past," she says. "The past didn't really help Al Gore in 2000."

And there are other potential pitfalls. One of them happened recently when Bill Clinton injected himself into the battle between his wife and her Democratic rivals after Sen. Clinton's rocky performance in the Philadelphia debate.

During a solo appearance in Las Vegas, the former president seemed to equate the Democrats' attacks on his wife with the swift boat ads that Republicans used against Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

"We saw what happened the last seven years when we made decisions in elections based on trivial matters, when that scandalous swift boat ad was run against Sen. Kerry. When there was an ad that defeated Max Cleland in Georgia, a man that left half his body in Vietnam. Why am I saying this? Because I had the feeling at the end of that last debate that we were about to get into cutesy land again," he said.

The other Democratic candidates were furious that Bill Clinton seemed to be accusing them of a Republican-style swift boat attack on Sen. Clinton.

Privately, Sen. Clinton's aides said the former president's comments were not helpful because the campaign had already abandoned its initial strategy of portraying Clinton's rivals as ganging up on her.

Potential Problems

Then there are the other questions that Bill Clinton's presence makes unavoidable. What role would the former president play if his wife were elected?

Sen. Clinton answered that question at a debate in New Hampshire.

"When I become president, Bill Clinton, my dear husband, will be one of the people who will be sent around the world as a roving ambassador," she said.

The senator made it sound simple, but it would be an unprecedented situation. Two presidents — one current and one former — under the same White House roof.

There is a constitutional amendment to prevent a president from serving more than two terms, and there is a law to prevent a president from appointing a relative to an official position.

Beyond that, we are in uncharted territory, says Sally Bedell Smith, author of a new book on the Clintons.

"In the case of Bill Clinton, you have somebody who automatically has a certain kind of standing, automatically, would overlap with many other senior members of the administration from the vice president on down," she says. "And the more you think about it, the more questions come up. Would he read the national intelligence estimate as a former president coming back to the White House? What would the secretary of state do if he (Bill Clinton) became an ambassador without portfolio? And it's all because of this deeply collaborative nature of their relationship."

Smith's book, For Love of Politics, is about the Clintons' political and personal partnership.

That partnership and how it may play out if the Clintons return to the White House has not yet become an issue in the campaign, but it might as voters begin to focus on whether returning this couple to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is a good thing or a bad thing.