During the Bill Clinton presidency, it became obvious that the president and the first lady were locked in a zero sum game of perception. The stronger people perceived her, the weaker they felt he was. Early in his tenure, news stories were rife about Hillary’s extraordinary influence on appointments, policy and political strategy. Each of these leaks sapped confidence in Bill Clinton’s strength and led to a drop in his ratings.
The solution was to exile Hillary from the White House. She stopped attending strategy meetings, no longer had a direct or public role in policy formulation and redoubled her schedule of foreign travel and writing.
Now, as Hillary runs for president and Bill speaks out on her behalf, the Clintons’ zero sum conundrum has returned. His stout defense of his wife saps her credibility and raises doubts about her potential strength as a president. With his every speech and utterance, the question grows: Can she stand up for herself or does she need to hide behind her husband?
The stereotype of the strong man standing up for his besieged wife is deeply ingrained in our psyche. But even as it feeds admiration for his chivalry, it also undermines her reputation for strength and independence.
Such criticism is potentially lethal for a woman candidate, particularly one seeking the presidency of a nation at war with a global matrix of terrorists. Hillary has been at great pains to build up her reputation for toughness, boasting that she will “deck” her opponents and that she is able to defeat the “vast right wing conspiracy.” OK. So why is her husband fighting her fights for her?
Bill Clinton is way too far out there for Hillary’s good. He needs to take the same kind of slow boat to China that he sent her on during his White House years — in her case, to address the global conference on women’s rights in Beijing.
Hillary’s debate performance is spawning layers of negatives. First, of course, people realize that she is ducking issues and dancing around making commitments. Her refusal to be pinned down was evident under Tim Russert’s skilled questioning.
But her protests, and those of her husband, against Russert’s questions and the tendency of her male opponents to pile on, led to a sense that she may be too weak to be president. After all, the men who run Al Qaeda, Iran, Russia and China have a tendency to pile on also.
Finally, with Bill rushing to her defense, backing her on the release of White House papers, taking responsibility for the health care debacle of 1993 to 1994 and accusing Russet of bias, comes the question of whether she is, in fact, strong enough to face the Republicans in the general election.
None of these ruminations are good for Hillary’s candidacy.
It seems that voters allocate a certain quantum of strength to a married couple, to be divided between them as their personalities and circumstances dictate. A strong wife implies a weak husband and vice versa. This social habit of thought carries over into politics and casts a shadow over our first married political couple since the Roosevelts.
Would we expect Denis Thatcher to speak up for Maggie? What would we think if he berated the men of the Argentine Junta for piling on against his wife? How would we respond if he accused the BBC of bias against his Prime Minister/wife?
The fact that Bill has been president just makes his intervention the more obvious and politically costly. Here we have not only a husband standing up for his woman, but a former president helping his ingénue wife in her efforts to fend for herself. The stereotype is not appealing and undermines Hillary’s candidacy.
Bill needs to go home and get a life.
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