Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination often deliver oblique criticisms of her role in the turbulent administration of her husband, labeling her a Washington insider and calling on voters to “turn the page” on an era of political polarization.
But as Wednesday night’s New Hampshire primary debate showed, Clinton’s rivals are moving closer to translating that innuendo into full-bore attacks on some of the more unpleasant memories of the Clinton years, with its failed healthcare plan, impeachment and frequent showdowns with the GOP.
“The old stuff,” as one rival, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, put it during one memorable moment in the debate.
Clinton’s campaign has largely benefited from her years as first lady, which have given her the imprimatur of experience while tapping into Democratic voters’ nostalgia. But Wednesday’s encounter showed that, as her front-runner status solidifies in polls, Clinton faces an unusual balancing act of absorbing the popular parts of her family legacy while deflecting the unpopular.
Repeatedly Wednesday night, sometimes at the urging of moderator Tim Russert and sometimes by the design of the candidates, the discussion turned to the Clinton administration and the former president himself -- and to the wisdom of nominating another Clinton. The candidate herself seemed happy to tout her special relationship with a man whose approval rating among Democrats hovers near 90%, but she bristled at the suggestion that her candidacy would offer more of the same old thing.
“From my perspective, you know, the values that he acted on, on behalf of our country, both at home and abroad, are ones that stand the test of time,” Clinton said. “But look, I’m running on my own.”
Clinton invoked the prosperity of her husband’s term, quoting accolades from former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and arguing that President Bush’s administration had squandered a Clinton-era surplus that would have left Social Security solvent until the middle of the 21st century.
Yet time and again, she was forced to deal with other aspects of the Clinton White House years.
Although nobody directly addressed the impeachment fight that defined so much of President Clinton’s second term and still colors the way many Americans view the Clintons, it was clearly a backdrop to the discussion -- as when Biden, filling an awkward silence following his “old stuff” remark, added: “When I say ‘old stuff,’ I’m referring to policy -- policy.”
But Biden went on to hint gingerly that voters should be wary of maintaining a partisan cycle. As Russert noted, a Clinton nomination in 2008 would mean a Bush or Clinton had been on the national ticket for every election since 1980.
“The special interests, with regard to Hillary, they feed on this, you know, this Clinton-Bush thing,” Biden said. “It’s not Hillary’s fault. But the fact of the matter is, it’s much more difficult to go out and convince a group of Republicans, I would argue, getting something done that is of a major consequence.”
Clinton’s closest competitor in polls, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, piled on when he blamed Clinton for dooming healthcare overhaul. He said that she “closed the door to a lot of potential allies” when she was first lady.
Clinton was on the defensive on other spouse-related matters as well -- among them her refusal to disclose donors to her husband’s presidential library and foundation.
When Russert asked Clinton directly about whether family dynasties were good for democracy, she offered a quick retort: “I thought Bill was a pretty good president.”
But she was also careful to keep her distance. When Russert pointed out a disagreement between her and her husband over the use of torture, Clinton looked surprised.
“Well, he’s not standing here right now,” she said to applause. When Russert pressed, she added: “Well, I’ll talk to him later.”
A Biden strategist said Thursday that the senator did not regret his reference to the turbulence of the Clinton years. Democrats who seek to overtake her must remind voters of the downside to restaging old battles, the strategist said.
“Every policy issue during the Clinton administration, beginning with healthcare, became embroiled in partisan bickering,” said Larry Rasky, Biden’s communications director. “You’ve got to remember: Bill Clinton never got 50% of the vote. It’s not like the Republicans have a mild dislike of the Clintons. There’s genuine contempt.”
Clinton won the presidency with 43% of the vote in 1992 and with 49% in 1996, both years in which Ross Perot was a third-party candidate.
Taking on the Clinton legacy is a risk for Democratic candidates. Surveys show the former president’s favorability ratings among Democrats have grown since he left office, from 77% in the summer of 2001 to 89% in December 2006, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Even among Republicans, Clinton’s favorability has doubled in that time, to 31%, perhaps partly because of his well-noted friendship with former President George H.W. Bush.
“I sense that [Hillary Clinton’s rivals] sometimes try to lump the Bush and Clinton administrations together as though it was one soup,” said Mark Penn, her pollster. “But that’s not how the voters see it. They see that they want a change from Bush, but Clinton did a great job as president.”
Analysts say Clinton may actually benefit from her rivals’ drawing attention to her earlier work on healthcare. Clinton often cites her healthcare work as evidence that she is battle-tested. Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll, said preliminary results from a survey being conducted this week showed that Democratic voters overwhelmingly favored her over her rivals on that issue.
“She should just smile and shut up, because it’s a plus for her,” Newport said.
Some of the candidates, perhaps wary of alienating the potential nominee, are evidently uneasy about challenging Clinton too harshly on her past.
Obama evaded a question from Russert on whether his campaign theme of “turning the page” referred to moving beyond the Bushes or the Clintons.
And Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, who recently accused Clinton of “terribly” mismanaging healthcare in the 1990s, backed off when Russert asked him to elaborate on his campaign’s suggestion that Republicans want Clinton to be the Democratic nominee.
“I was being somewhat facetious, Tim,” he said.