Bill Clinton, despite his reputation as Democrats’ “big dog,” so far has appeared more border collie than pit bull on the campaign trail for his wife this year -- causing fewer headaches for Hillary Clinton’s campaign than he did in 2008 but not exactly lighting a fire under the base.
The former president made his solo debut in early January with a 28-minute speech in New Hampshire that began with an impressive mashup of politics, policy and total recall.
“The top 5 percent [of working Americans] actually did slightly better under President Reagan than me,” Clinton said. “Everybody else did better in the 1990s. …. Listen to this, the bottom 20 percent, their incomes increased … 23.6 percent.”
It was vintage Clinton, able to easily weave stats and figures into his bigger-picture narrative.
“There’s no one in the world who can explain complicated things in the simplest words like Bill Clinton,” said Douglas Smith, a partner at Kent Strategies who worked on campaigns for Al Gore and both Clintons.
Still, at about the halfway mark of the speech, Clinton downshifted into a lengthy, oral history of his wife’s post-college life that occasionally lagged and hushed the crowd inside the Nashua Community College auditorium.
Reporters, practically by consensus, called the speech “subdued” and noted Clinton appeared frail, his voice sounding raspier than it did eight years earlier when he last stumped for his wife.
In the handful of subsequent campaign appearances, Clinton essentially delivered the same speech, suggesting his wife’s lifetime of public service makes her uniquely qualified for “restoring broadly shared prosperity.”
Whether the new and subdued Clinton, however, is helping his wife, and to what extent, is debatable.
On one hand, the former president is avoiding the kind of trouble he stirred up in 2008. Then, with Hillary Clinton in a tight race against Barack Obama, the former president took heat for his aggressive criticism of the popular Illinois senator. Criticizing Obama’s claims on his Iraq war stance, Clinton called it the “biggest fairy tale” -- a put-down that was interpreted as a broad-brush slam on Obama’s quest to become the country’s first black president.
Later in South Carolina, Clinton got the name “hatchet man” for his attacks on Obama.
And after Obama decisively defeated Hillary Clinton in the state’s Democratic primary -- on the strength of the black vote -- the former president was criticized for noting that the Rev. Jesse Jackson won that primary in 1984 and 1988 but lost the party nomination.
Hillary Clinton apologized months later, saying her husband’s comments were “certainly not meant in any way to be offensive."
There are no such distractions this time around. And on Monday, Hillary Clinton was declared the winner in Iowa’s caucuses over Sen. Bernie Sanders, after trailing him through stretches in January.
At the same time, Hillary Clinton is in a sense missing her most powerful political weapon.
“He seemed perfunctory, looked gaunt, didn’t seem to captivate the crowd,” Jon Ralston, a veteran political commentator in Nevada, told The New York Times after seeing Clinton at a Las Vegas event.
And a strange scene unfolded in Des Moines Monday night. Despite indications that Bill and Chelsea Clinton were supposed to speak before the candidate, this never happened. Only Hillary Clinton spoke, before all three Clintons abruptly left the stage.
Smith disagreed with the notion that Bill Clinton is suddenly subdued, arguing he remains passionate about his wife’s campaign but this time is more measured.
“The opposition, those with an agenda, parsed his words,” Smith said. Of the fallout from the “fairy tale” remark, he said, “There’s not a racist bone in Clinton’s body. It broke his heart.”
Clinton still takes a few jabs at other candidates, saying people truly run for president based on their beliefs, which is “kinda scary this year.”
His speeches have become notably tighter and more polished in the past month.
“She is the single best change-maker that I’ve ever known,” he said of his wife in a four-minute speech Saturday inside a packed school gym in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “Everything she has ever touched she has made better.”
The 69-year-old Clinton has had two heart procedures but has no known health problems. And aides attribute his visible weight loss to a vegan diet.
Still, even Clinton acknowledges some of the fight has indeed left him.
“I'm a happy grandfather,” he said. “I'm not mad at anybody."