On Meet the Press this week (9/20/15), host Chuck Todd discussed “Hillary Clinton’s current struggle to maintain her frontrunner status.” And while he says there are “many explanations folks are offering up,” he focused on one of them: “Many Democrats lament if she could only be more Bill”—meaning her husband, former President Bill Clinton:
It’s a standard that some may say is unfair but also may help to explain why there is a missing spark on the trail and why the chatter about an alternative—whether Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden—is only getting louder.
Todd compared Hillary Clinton to Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s vice president who ran unsuccessfully (thanks to the Supreme Court) to succeed him:
Gore ran away from Clinton instead of running with him, signaling that he’d offer Clinton’s policies without the private mess…. Hillary Clinton is never going to run away from Bill, but for now, her campaign is keeping the most popular Democrat in America at arm’s length, while also hoping to be burnished by his economic legacy.
Todd summed up before passing the topic to his panel of journalists:
This Hillary Clinton issue, it’s—she’s not Bill, right. That’s really what you hear from Democrats. That’s ultimately why they’re not rushing. They’re sort of waiting to rush.
By and large, the panel accepted this analysis. The Washington Post‘s David Maraniss, who’s written books on Bill Clinton, thought she didn’t measure up in the “theater” department:
She doesn’t have Bill Clinton’s charisma and amazing campaign abilities…. I always have called Bill Clinton sort of an authentic phony. He really is good at that. And Hillary, if you look at it just as theater, is a phony-phony. She’s not as good at it, so that always hurts her in comparison with Bill.
The Atlantic‘s Molly Ball also thought she had an image problem:
You talk about her having trouble coming out from under Bill’s shadow. And it’s because she herself is not very defined for people. And you know, her campaign keeps trying to make this not about her, make it more about the policy or the substance, that’s the ground she’s most comfortable on. But it’s always going to be about her, and she has trouble creating an image of herself in people’s minds that really stands out.
NBC‘s Maria Shriver—who was born a Kennedy, and married a Schwarzenegger—stuck up for Hillary Clinton:
She does have a tremendous amount of respect and a tremendous amount of support and I think to compare her to Bill Clinton is a little unfair.
She does have a long record, she’s done a lot for middle-class Americans, she’s arguing to try to be the first female president of the United States, and women ultimately will be the deciders of this election, be they Republican or Democrat.
So the consensus is that Hillary Clinton’s problem is that she’s not her husband, she lacks his “amazing campaign skills” and is “not very defined for people.” That’s why, from the perspective of NBC‘s Beltway studio, there’s “chatter about an alternative — whether Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.” If only she could make it “more about the policy or the substance,” get some credit for Bill’s “economic legacy” and convey that “she’s done a lot for middle-class Americans.”
But for many of the likely voters who have backed off from Clinton, her problem isn’t that she’s not enough like her husband…but rather that she’s too much like him.
Take the early-caucusing state of Iowa, where Clinton and Sanders are now essentially tied in polls. If there’s one thing Iowa Democrats agree about, it’s economic inequality. In a Quinnipiac poll from July (7/6/15), 91 percent said the federal government should “try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans”–77 percent said they strongly believed that.
Here’s what inequality looked like during the Clinton administration (Washington Post, 9/5/12):
That wasn’t something that just happened to happen on Bill Clinton’s watch–it’s related to policies that he championed, including trade bills like NAFTA, a commitment to an overpriced dollar, financial deregulation, dismantling the welfare system and more. That’s his “economic legacy.”
Atlantic‘s Ball wrote in her own magazine about Hillary Clinton “having trouble coming out from under Bill’s shadow,” as she put it on Meet the Press–but not because she has “trouble creating an image of herself,” but because of the very policies and substance that the TV Ball said Clinton would rather being talking about:
Many critics blame Bill Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act for the 2008 financial crisis, and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he championed, is frequently cited in the current debate over trade authority as an example of a bad free-trade deal. Welfare reform is another Bill Clinton compromise that many modern-day progressives reject. The Hillary Clinton of 2016 has yet to take a position on these issues, though she issued a statement expressing concern about the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Obama strongly supports the deal, and Hillary Clinton previously advocated it as secretary of State.
Though Todd presents Sanders and Clinton as interchangeable alternatives to Clinton, their records on these issues are quite different. Biden, who has yet to say he’s running, was a leading supporter of the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, which made it easier for creditors to force repayment of debt. Pundit Jonathan Chait (L.A. Times, 3/4/05) called it “one of those abysmal pieces of legislation that exists only because businesses with a vested interest in it have lobbied hard for its passage”–businesses like Delaware-based credit card giant MBNA, the largest contributor to his Senate campaign chest.
This surprising grass-roots success, without the aid of a super PAC or corporate millions, stems from a very simple message: Wealth inequality is destroying the American middle class and leading to increased job loss and poverty.
For Meet the Press, which traditionally views politics from the perspective of the powerful, it’s comforting to blame Clinton’s campaign problems on her lack of charisma, suggesting that the Democratic establishment has the right issues but the wrong messenger. It upsets the whole order of things if what Democratic voters are really looking for is not an “authentic phony”–but an authentic populist.
Jim Naureckas is the editor of FAIR.org.