How do you tell the greatest political talent of his generation that he's lost his stuff? I'm not sure how, but somebody might want to deliver that news to Bill Clinton.
While many thought that he would be an effective surrogate for his wife in this election, since he's still popular and he's a walking reminder of how good things were in the 1990s, Bill only makes news when he says something he'd like to take back, as he did on Monday when he seemed to decry the "awful legacy" of the last seven years. Before we go further, let's see the full quote in context:
But if you believe we can all rise together, if you believe we've finally come to the point where we can put the awful legacy of the last eight years behind us and the seven years before that when we were practicing trickle-down economics and no regulation in Washington, which is what caused the crash, then you should vote for her because she's the only person who basically has good ideas, will tell you how she's going to pay for them, can be commander-in-chief and is a proven changemaker with Republicans and Democrats and independents alike.
After lots of people noted that it was odd for him to refer to the "awful legacy" of the Obama administration when his wife is running to continue the work of that administration, the Clinton campaign protested that what he was referring to was Republican obstructionism. Which he may well have been. But it's hard not to think that the old Bill Clinton would have understood how that comment would be taken before it made it out of his mouth.
We shouldn't make too much of this particular statement, though some are surely inclined to (my favorite headline about it came from The Washington Times: "Bill Clinton calls Obama's legacy 'awful,' potentially dooming wife's campaign"). It would be wrong to describe it as anything other than the kind of ephemeral microcontroversy of which we see so many during campaigns. And as a general rule, "gaffes" are meaningless. I'm fairly sure that there is no one in the media who has criticized gaffe-based coverage as often and for as long as I have. So it gives me no pleasure to tell a campaign to acquiesce to the tyranny of the gaffe. But given that this is only the latest of many unfortunate statements Bill has made, it may have reached a point where he's more of a liability than an asset.
You can put it down to being out of practice — after all, the last time Bill Clinton ran for office was 20 years ago — but it's hard to avoid the suspicion that age has hurt his political instincts, especially when it comes to public performance. Interestingly, the age issue some predicted would dog Hillary Clinton has almost entirely disappeared. That may be because her likely general election opponent is a year and half older than she is (Donald Trump is 69; she's 68), but it's mostly because she shows no signs of slowing down at all. Out on the trail, she seems as energetic and engaged as any candidate. Indeed, when you watch the Clintons together these days, the difference between them is striking; she looks as vigorous as ever, while he seems like a gaunt and wizened version of who he used to be.
It may not be an accident that the comments Bill has gotten in trouble for are criticisms of the Obama administration, whether they're intended or misinterpreted. That's because he can't seem to help himself from characterizing President Obama as a failure. Just a couple of weeks ago, he said that this has been "such a wacky election" because "millions and millions of people look at that pretty picture of America [President Obama] painted and they cannot find themselves in it to save their lives." His wife, he went on, "is running for president to put every single American in the picture President Obama painted."
Of course, "Bill Clinton attacks Barack Obama" is always going to be news, even if it means remarks will be taken out of context to prove the point. "Bill Clinton gives forgettable speech, says nothing controversial" isn't going to make it into your local paper. But the question for Hillary Clinton isn't whether the media will treat Bill fairly, it's whether, given whatever unfairness he might be subject to, it's still worth it to have him out campaigning for her. And one has to wonder whether the day when it isn't has arrived.
In a better world, gaffes would be irrelevant and reporters wouldn't bother to note Bill's mistakes. But they do.