WASHINGTON — Poke. Poke. Donald Trump, master irritant, tried for a week to get under the skin of a Hillary Clinton surrogate with a temper.
Bill Clinton’s Monday response: a smiling no-comment.
All good. So far.
“He’s one of the most talented politicians in American history,” said Gil Troy, the author of a book on the Clinton presidency, “but he’s also volatile like mercury.”
Sidelined by his wife’s campaign for most of 2015, Bill Clinton returned to the stump with a New Hampshire speech on the first work day of the new year. Eight years after his public fuming hurt her first bid for the Democratic nomination, he was the picture of good cheer.
Calm and quiet, the former president testified to the candidate’s character and experience. He urged the country to choose “inclusive” politics. And he described himself as a “happy grandfather” not angry at anybody.
“In ’08, I think he did show a little thin skin about her that he didn’t have about himself. My gut is he’s probably learned his lesson from that,” said consultant Bill Carrick, a senior adviser to Bill Clinton’s 1996 campaign. “I don’t think he’ll get himself into situations where he’s saying controversial things and detracting from the overall mission here.”
Others are less certain. Troy said an unexpected question from a reporter or unexpected attack from Republican operatives could derail Bill Clinton’s best attempts to stay on message. And then there is Trump, who has taken to calling him a sexist “abuser” of women from his adulterous past.
“Even if he’s a good boy, even if he follows the script, sometimes there’s no script you can follow,” said Troy, a McGill University history professor. “The volatility will be there no matter how disciplined he is.”
For Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, his gifts make him worth the risk. Unlike her last campaign, this one doesn’t need a saviour. But she is trailing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, the second state to vote. Her approval rating among Democrats, while excellent across the board, is better with women than men.
Bill Clinton has the best national approval rating of any living politician. He could be especially effective with older New Hampshire voters with fond memories of his tenure, said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala, and with lower-income men who “may not see much in common between themselves and Hillary Clinton.”
“It’ll be interesting to see whether they send him to places where he himself did particularly well back in the day, which would be among more working-class, blue-collar Democrats,” he said. “Even though (Hillary) Clinton did well among those voters in 2008, she is not doing that well in 2016.”
Bill Clinton’s presence on the campaign trail is complicated by Hillary Clinton’s increasingly mixed relationship with his political legacy. As she has moved left, partly in an attempt to counter Sanders, she has distanced herself from policies she once endorsed.
She still boasts of her husband’s economic record, but she has rejected the punitive crime bill that was a centrepiece of his domestic agenda. He championed NAFTA; she opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“I’m not running for my husband’s third term, I’m not running for Obama’s third term, I’m running for my first term,” she said in October.
Troy said there are “endless” possibilities for harmful general-election stories on Hillary Clinton’s evolving positions on Bill Clinton’s achievements. Carrick said Bill Clinton, the best policy communicator of his lifetime, will “easily” explain away their differences.
“If you want to, say, compare NAFTA to TPP — by the time Bill Clinton gets through with that, we’ll all be nodding our heads up and down yes,” he said.