WASHINGTON – Observers on both sides of the political aisle agree that former President Bill Clinton is a help rather than a hindrance to wife and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton as she pursues her goal of returning to the White House, this time as the first woman president.
That's mostly because, after six years of being an "ex-president," Clinton's cachet as a national leader, statesman and political guru has skyrocketed while the taint of his sex scandals and other less laudable aspects of his legacy have dissipated over time, say Clinton watchers.
"Whatever damage there was has been done," and the fallout on the campaign trail has so far been minimal if not non-existent, said Ellis Henican, political columnist for Newsday in New York.
The former first lady has won two U.S. Senate races and is considered the early front-runner to be the Democratic candidate for president in 2008. She also polls favorably against potential Republican opponents.
Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1998 and acquitted by the Senate in 1999 on charges that he lied to a federal grand jury about his 1995-1996 affair with 22-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
He also paid $850,000 to settle a claim by Paula Jones that he had sexually harassed her in a hotel room in 1991 while he was governor of Arkansas. A civil court had initially dismissed Jones' claim, citing a lack of evidence of damages, but Clinton settled with Jones while the case was in appeal.
A subsequent court ruling that Clinton provided misleading testimony in the case led to the suspension of his membership with the Arkansas State Bar.
But no matter the political cloud he left under in 2001, his popularity has enjoyed a visible resurgence, with polls showing him among the most popular presidents in the last century — and even re-electable if the U.S. Constitution didn't bar him from holding the Oval Office again.
Those approval numbers can only help his wife as she embarks on her own presidential quest, said John Gizzi, political editor of Human Events magazine, which had been highly critical of Bill Clinton during the Jones and Lewinsky scandals.
“There is no doubt about it — he would be an enhancement to her,” he said. “He’s an extremely popular president right now.”
Mark Wrighton, associate professor of politics at the University of New Hampshire, said Clinton's team assessed the possible damage of Bill's baggage a long time ago.
“All of the issues over Bill Clinton are factored in already,” said Wrighton, who believes most people have already made up their minds Sen. Hillary Clinton, and her husband can’t hurt any more than he has. “I would call it a wash.”
Sen. Clinton gave the media a fit of giggles and speculation recently when she made what many believe to be a veiled reference to her husband's less virtuous image.
"Well, the question really is, we face a lot of dangers in the world and, in the gentleman's words, we face a lot of evil men, you know, people like Usama bin Laden comes to mind," she said in response to a voter's question during an Iowa campaign stop. "And what, in my background, equips me to deal with evil and bad men?"
The pregnant pause followed by the senator's smile led to a roomful of laughter. She later declined to say what was on her mind when she stopped talking.
Henican suggested that kind of playfulness might do her good, particularly if her audiences start comparing her and her husband on the charm factor — the one area where her spouse could hurt her on the stump.
"You don't want a situation where people say she's pale compared to him," said Henican. "On charm and human connections, she is not remotely equal to him on that."