Clift: Can Bill Help Hillary Win?

Suddenly Bill Clinton is everywhere, solving poverty, tackling AIDS, hosting Laura Bush, crafting the Democrats' message and deflecting questions about his wife's likely run for president. He doesn't know if he wants her to run, or if she'll run, and if she runs, he doesn't know that she'll win. "A million things can happen," he said. But he does know one thing, that if she got elected, "she would be a magnificent president," he told CNN's Larry King this week.

Clinton is a force of nature, the shade tree for Hillary as she ventures out of the senatorial cocoon to vie for the presidency. Shade is mostly a good thing, but not always, and the yin-yang role of the former president in his wife's political life is understood by both of them. Unlike Al Gore, Hillary is at ease with her husband's idiosyncrasies and has learned over a long marriage how to mitigate the damages.

As for Bill, he is her best strategist, with a fingertip feel for the electorate that is unrivaled. Thanks to the therapy he went through, says a friend, "He more than anyone can be objective about himself." Clinton has settled into his postpresidential life with gusto, and an approving public is rewarding his global good works with poll ratings that dwarf the current president's. He is in the public eye as Hillary's stand-in. But there will be times when he needs to get out of the way. Can she win? That's what people want to know, and Clinton is pleasingly humble about his wife's prospects. "If she did decide to run, I have no idea if she would win," he told King.

Can a woman do it? There's no history to draw on. A big chunk of the Democratic Party doesn't trust her, doesn't know what she stands for. Another chunk loves her but doesn't think she can win. And then there's the black hole of her marriage, which will once again prove endlessly fascinating if not to the general public then to the media. Attitudes toward Hillary are pretty hardened, both positive and negative. There's not a lot of fluidity in how people feel about her. She has changed minds in upstate New York, which is dominantly Republican, by focusing on economic concerns. If she can do that in Ohio, a state a Democrat should win in '08, while holding the Blue States John Kerry and Al Gore won, that would put her in the White House. She'd be polarizing, but then it's hard to imagine any Democrat that wouldn't be given the stakes and the tenor of modern campaigns.

Hillary already has a bad case of front-runneritis, measuring every public utterance and seeming way too cautious and calculating—especially for party activists. Excess caution comes with the territory for anybody running for president, says Matt Bennett with the Democratic centrist group Third Way. "You cannot be a viable presidential candidate without being vague," he says. Bennett was Wesley Clark's campaign manager in '04, a race that ran aground in New Hampshire primarily over Clark's unease as a newly registered Democrat with domestic issues in general and the abortion issue in particular. "The loyalists are always aggravated," Bennett adds. Not offending party regulars while courting independents is the key to winning, a balancing act requiring more skill than conviction.

What could derail Hillary? She could lose Iowa, the first contest, to John Edwards, who is banking on a reservoir of good will toward him from '04. The ghosts of Gore past and future hover over the race, and if Hillary falters, he could enter the race late, drawing on the apparatus. A Democratic dream ticket that would upend the Washington establishment—Gore and Barack Obama, the charismatic freshman senator from Illinois who everybody agrees is destined for greater things. Who better to help Gore reclaim the presidency?

Hillary could survive a setback in Iowa, and maybe she can brush off Gore's lingering hunger for the presidency. She will win the nomination if she wants it. She's tough-minded; she has the money, and former Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe got caught by The Hill newspaper telling friends he'll chair her presidential campaign. She's headed for a big re-election win in New York, and according to Clinton on Larry King, she'll re-evaluate her role in the Senate after the election. She's already a player on the Armed Services Committee. If the Democrats are smart and recognize her as their likely nominee, they'll look for ways to showcase her.

If she doesn't run, or runs and loses, she is the natural heir to take over the legacy of Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion of the Senate. Untethered by presidential ambition, she could travel the world and do the Sunday shows, freed from parsing her words, confident she could keep her seat as long as she wants it. "It's the deal or no deal—do you gamble on $6 million or walk away with $1 million," says Bennett. From her sinecure in the Senate, Hillary can take the gamble. Can Democrats?