Ex-President Brings Problems with Power Former President Bill Clinton is spending more time on the road by himself plugging Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, the senator from New York. His campaign celebrity is being matched by Oprah Winfrey for Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat challenging Clinton.
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Ex-President Brings Problems with Power

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Ex-President Brings Problems with Power

Ex-President Brings Problems with Power

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Now, the last American president also ended his term by trying to bring about peace in the Middle East. These days Bill Clinton is in the middle of an effort to make his wife the next president to inherit the Israel-Palestinian conflict in whatever shape it will be in 2009.

Mr. Clinton was campaigning for his wife yesterday in Iowa which brings to mind the advantages and disadvantages of having an ex-president so closely involved in her campaign.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson has more.

MARA LIASSON: In Muscatine, Iowa, five hundred people crowded into the YMCA gym to hear the best retail politician of his generation make the pitch for his wife.

Mr. BILL CLINTON (Former President, United States): You need somebody in that job who is strong, confident, has good plans, good vision, but never forgets what it's like to be you. And 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.

LIASSON: Having 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.

Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Al Gore's former Campaign Manager): Of course, Bill Clinton is a beloved figure in Democratic Party.

LIASSON: That's Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's campaign in 2000. She thinks Bill Clinton would be an asset in a general election as well because Americans with hindsight now give his presidency a 65 percent approval rating, but, says Brazile, there is a downside.

Ms. BRAZILE: 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 isn't a new political season. Bill Clinton represents the past; Senator Clinton must become the face of the future, not just a voice of the past. The past - look, the past didn't really help Al Gore in 2000.

LIASSON: And there are other potential pitfalls. One of them was on full display recently when Bill Clinton, unprompted, injected himself into the battle between his wife and her Democratic rivals after Senator Clinton's rocky performance in the Philadelphia debate.

Here he is at a solo appearance in Las Vegas.

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

LIASSON: The other Democratic candidates were furious that Bill Clinton seemed to be accusing them of a Republican-style swift vote attack on Hillary. Privately, Senator Clinton's aides said her husband's off-message comments were not helpful since the campaign had already abandoned its initial strategy of portraying Hillary as the victim of piling on by her male rivals.

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? Senator Clinton was asked about that at a debate in New Hampshire.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): 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 to makeā€¦

LIASSON: Hillary Clinton made it sound simple, but, in fact, it would be an unprecedented situation: Two presidents - one current, one former - under one White House roof. There's a Constitutional amendment to prevent a president from serving more than two terms, and there's a law to prevent a president from appointing a relative to an official position.

But beyond that, says Sally Bedell Smith, the author of a new book on the Clintons, we're in an unchartered territory.

Ms. SALLY BEDELL SMITH (Author, "For Love of Politics"): 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. 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 became a sort of ambassador without portfolio? And it's all because of the - of this deeply collaborative nature of their relationship.

LIASSON: The title of Smith's book is "For Love of Politics." It's 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 Avenue is a good thing or a bad thing.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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