The Oval: Clinton's Comeback

When Hillary Clinton and John McCain traded rhetorical blows over North Korea last week, some pundits hailed the exchange as a taste of 2008: a titanic clash between the early front runners in the next presidential election.

They forgot that the real titans of modern politics have yet to leave the stage: two relatively young, two-term presidents who show no sign of stepping out of the national debate on domestic politics and foreign affairs. Welcome to the heavyweight title fight between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Clinton declared his political comeback Wednesday with a set-piece speech that is aimed, according to his aides, at framing his governing philosophy in the context of the 2006 elections. Clinton's goal: to show why his philosophy works, and why Bush's doesn't. Clinton, of course, doesn't cite Bush's name. But he hardly pulls his punches against what he calls "the leadership in Washington today."

In theory, Wednesday's speech marked the 15th anniversary of Clinton's "new covenant" speech at Georgetown University. In practice, it marked a reinventing of Clinton's themes—three weeks before the congressional elections—for today's problems.

Back in 1991 (as he was running for president), Clinton explained his new covenant like this: "People once looked at the president and the Congress to bring us together, to solve problems, to make progress. Now, in the face of massive challenges, our government stands discredited, our people are disillusioned. There's a hole in our politics where our sense of common purpose used to be."

Now the disillusion and discontent is fueled more by war than the economy. But Clinton is still trying to offer a vision of what he calls the "common good" instead of division over taxes, culture and conflict. "We believe in mutual responsibility. They believe that, in large measure, people make or break their own lives and you're on your own," he explained in today's speech. "We believe in striving, at least, to cooperate with others because we think that there are very few problems in the world we can solve on our own. They favor unilateralism whenever possible, and cooperation when it's unavoidable."

Clinton touched on some old themes: what he sees as the GOP's giveaways to big corporations and the wealthiest Americans, instead of his policy priorities: expanded health care, fiscal responsibility and tax cuts for the middle class. But he also outlined a New Democrat's approach to foreign policy. "I think the common-good approach on national security worked," he said. "It was a combination of carrots and sticks. We did have military encounters. We didn't succeed at everything we tried to do, but I think on balance the world was safer when we stopped than when we started."

Since the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, Clinton and George H.W. Bush—the man he beat in 1992—have formed a close working relationship that has been transformational. And aides say the current president genuinely enjoys Clinton's company, as well.

But there's another transformation that has quietly taken place over the last six years. When Clinton left office, his approval numbers in the Gallup poll were at a low 39 percent in early 2001. Today they are 20 points higher, and they have risen steadily as President Bush's numbers have dropped. Something similar happened to former president George H.W. Bush through the Monica Lewinsky scandal. That rise in 41's standing helped propel his son into a presidential campaign. It's entirely possible that Clinton's comeback will help propel his wife into her presidential campaign.

In the meantime, it's worth comparing the campaign schedules of the current president and his predecessor. On Thursday night, both Bush and Clinton will be in Virginia. In Richmond, the current president is scheduled to stump for embattled Sen. George Allen. At the exact same time, the former president will be headlining a private fund-raiser in McLean for Allen's Democratic opponent, Jim Webb. Last week, Bush headlined a $1.1 million fund-raiser for GOP congressional hopeful Peter Roskam. On Monday, Clinton will head to Illinois to campaign for Roskam's opponent, Tammy Duckworth, where he is expected to raise about $1 million. Wherever Bush goes, Clinton follows.

Yet Bush's profile is often lower than Clinton's on the campaign trail. While Clinton has been a welcomed speaker by Democrats in many of the nation's hottest House and Senate races, Bush's campaign schedule just isn't what it was four years ago.

Since August, Bush has appeared at public campaign events outside Washington just 15 times, according to an analysis by National Journal. By comparison, Bush had appeared at 29 public campaign events during the same period in 2002. White House officials have discounted the analysis because it does not take into account the private fund-raising Bush has done in recent weeks—including a stopover in Ohio for Sen. Mike DeWine . Yet there's no disputing that many Republican candidates have kept Bush at arm's length this year.

While Bush's schedule for the final weeks of the campaign hasn't been finalized, a tentative schedule provided by a senior administration official has the president on the road for just two to three events each week before Election Day—not the heavy schedule one might expect for a president whose party is in real jeopardy of losing control of Congress.

In contrast, Clinton has been a hot ticket in recent weeks, following his highly publicized interview on "Fox News Sunday" in which he angrily defended his administration's legacy on his handling of Al Qaeda and terrorism. He has stumped for congressional candidates in hotly contested races in Tennessee, Missouri, Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Minnesota, among other states.

Last weekend, he headlined a fund-raiser for Iowa Democrats in Des Moines, where he paraded into the room on a long red carpet like a celebrity on Oscar night. Women shrieked and men fumbled with their cameras as the former president walked by offering handshakes and high-fives. It could have been a scene straight out of 1996—except "Hail to the Chief" was replaced by a song off of U2's latest album.

Just as Bush has stepped up his attacks on Democrats in the final weeks of the campaign, Clinton has started trashing the current administration for increasing the federal deficit, bungling the response on Hurricane Katrina and for being "the most secretive and unaccountable" White House in history.

"You cannot blame the entire Republican Party," Clinton told supporters in Iowa. Casting his speech notes aside, the former president accused Republicans of trying to "paint themselves as pure and the rest of us who don't agree with them as stained" in order to stay in power. All three branches of government, Clinton said, were in control "not of the Republican Party, but of the most ideological, the most right wing, the most extreme sliver of the Republican Party."

Democrats, Clinton said, have a "big responsibility." "Forget about politics," he whispered. "Just go out and find somebody and look them dead in the eye and say, 'You know this isn't right'… We can do better, and this year, it's a job that Democrats have to do alone."

It's not clear that Clinton can connect with his old "common ground" message. But he is trying to identify the problem that every recent poll points to: a deep dismay with today's politics and the direction of the country. A recent Pew Research Center poll found 30 per cent of Americans said they were satisfied with the way things were going in the country. That's lower than Bush's personal approval ratings (37 percent) and lower than the number who said the military effort in Iraq was going fairly well or very well (also 37 percent).

That national discontent does not just originate with Iraq or Bush, even if they are big factors behind the gloom. Only Republican and Democratic leaders rate lower than Bush, and by a slim margin, voters dislike the GOP more (33 percent approval versus 35 percent for Democrats).

Back in 2000, Bush shared a striking political quality with Clinton, even as the current president ran on a slogan of restoring honor to the Oval Office: he shared his optimism. In that period, he called Bill Clinton "the shadow," tapping into the anger over Clinton's scandals by offering a fresh start.

Three campaign seasons later, the political message hasn't changed much—but the messenger has. Now it's Bill Clinton who is talking about a fresh start, while Bush's message is more about finishing what he started: more about gritty resolve than a brighter day ahead. That's the opening that the boy from Hope is trying, once again, to exploit.