Tapping Clinton’s entergy

You may have noted that former President Clinton was back in Arkansas over the weekend, toasting some visiting diplomats on Sunday, addressing a health conference on Monday. By late afternoon he was in Haiti, helping dedicate an economic development project. The following day he traversed the hemisphere to campaign for President Obama and some other Democratic candidates in California. Then on to a party fundraiser in Illinois. By Wednesday he was appearing in a new television spot for Mr. Obma.

And so on. Loving every minute of it. Rail thin, but energized, heading back to the airport for the next takeoff, the next stop, the next audience.

There is always the next purportedly in-depth analysis of his resolve to perpetuate himself through a successor. If Gore didn’t work, then perhaps Mr. Obama, despite the latter’s drubbing of (now Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton in the Democratic contest four years ago.

From the latest navel-gaze, by New York magazine’s John Heilemann: “The Barack-and-Bill double act on display this fall marks a new and intriguing phase in a psychological entanglement so rich that if Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung were alive, they would surely be squabbling…”

Really? Well, we can’t have the good doctors wrestling one another on the couch, can we? Heilemann, only a couple paragraphs later, seems to acknowledge there’s less intrigue and entanglement than he’d just posited.

“What Obama stands to gain from the transaction is plain enough to see,” Heilemann suddenly sees, and plainly. “The support of the political figure with the highest approval rating, 69 percent, of any in America. The suasive services of a surrogate” — a little alliteration never hurts — “who can talk the owls down from the trees. The imprimatur of a former president associated with a period of broad and deep prosperity, imbued with unparalleled credibility on matters economic, and possessing special traction with the white working- and middle-class voters whom Obama has always had a hard time reaching…(I)n other words…a healthy boost in his quest for reelection — one all the more invaluable in the wake of his dismal performance in the first debate.”

See? Good. Now that we have that untangled, there’s the what-s-in-it-for-me/them? aspect. Heilemann has studied that at length, too, and figured it out.

“The potential payoff for Clinton is more ineffable but no less substantial…

Clinton is reveling in seeing his legacy restored to what he regards as its rightful status: a restoration that will mightily benefit his wife if she hurls herself at the White House again in 2016.”

That the magazine might actually have paid Heilemann for his treatise leaves me less amused by him than envious of him. But I’ll grant him this: in fewer than 40 words, or about the length of a network news soundbite, Heilemann captured the Clinton political persona a dozen years after he departed the White House:

“(I)n 2012, he has emerged as the Democrats’ own Reagan: revered by his party, respected so much by the GOP that it dare not cross him, sanctified by the great heaving middle.”

To which I would note that respect can grow from fear, not only of Clinton’s fund-raising abilities: Clinton “fatigue” has long since been replaced by Clinton nostalgia, years of comparative peace and a surging economy. That generous circumstances beyond his immediate control may have been as kind to the former president as his policies may have been beneficial is not relevant today to “the great heaving middle.” Which explains why there have been only kind words (if infrequent, so as not to encourage the nostalgia) about Clinton and scarcely a mention (except by Democrats) of his successor.

If the thought that winning might require Clinton’s help (and who could argue that Clinton unleashed could not have swung Florida, perhaps even another close state, in Gore’s direction?) was more bile than Al Gore could swallow, Mr. Obama quite obviously is willing to hold his nose. In strategic terms, subordinating ego to achieve a political objective is part and parcel of the game. Mr. Obama’s self-assurance, never in deficit, is not so substantial that he is willing to repeat Gore’s mistake.

To repeat, however: a favored son could not turn even his native Arkansas to his designated legatee a dozen years ago (as there is no chance, none, that he could do it this year). His coattails have proved too short for many of the candidates for whom he’s campaigned since leaving the White House. But this year? Could Clinton be the difference in turnout in Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, North Carolina or any of the other in a handful of states now in play in the great Electoral College game?

Better to have him on board, plainly, than sitting on the sidelines — Al Gore’s mistake, the lesson learned by Barack Obama.

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Steve Barnes, a native of Pine Bluff, is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.