The Internet Gives Hillary Clinton Some Campaign Relationship Advice

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NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 22:  Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) speaks as former U.S. President Bill Clinton looks on during the opening plenary session of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), on September 22, 2014 in New York City. The annual meeting, established in 2005 by President Bill Clinton, convenes global leaders to discuss solutions to world problems.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Yes, you stay over there, Bill.Photo: John Moore/2014 Getty Images

Commentators seized on Hillary Clinton’s mass-incarceration and immigration remarks this week as an invitation to talk about one of the known unknowns of her presidential campaign: What is she going to do with Bill and his presidential legacy? 

Her speech — and its giant side-step away from the ‘90s view of how to deal with crime — showed that she has no irreversible sentimentality for the past, and the question seems to be, how much further can she go “Elsa” on the Clinton presidency?

If she needs some ideas, political writers have plenty of advice for how she should go about it. 

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Ditch Bill”

Rebecca Traister at The New Republic advises Bill Clinton to “stay out of her way.”

It turns out that when left to her own devices, Hillary does just fine. In the Senate, she won over congressional conservatives (depressingly, by deferring to the more powerful men around her); she knocked back drinks with John McCain, and cemented a reputation as a workhorse (not a show horse!). Hillary, on her own, is capable, charming, difficult to dislike. … Consider the giddy weirdness of “Texts From Hillary,” a meme that would never have existed if Bill had been next to her in that photograph, mostly because the man would never have stopped talking long enough for her to send a single god-damned text.

Keep Bill

He happens to be exceptionally popular, as Andrew Rosenthal points out.

But one number really jumped out of the Times/CBS Poll at me. It was 76 percent. That’s the share of Democrats in the poll who said they have a favorable view of former President Bill Clinton. Only 4 percent said their view was unfavorable. In the public at large, Mr. Clinton has a 50 percent approval rating. So if Republicans are hoping to mess up Mrs. Clinton’s primary campaign by mentioning her husband as often as possible, that may be a real job of work.

Ditch Bill’s Policies

Jamelle Bouie wrote in April that running on Bill’s platform — geared mostly toward working-class whites who have drifted to the Republican Party — would be a nonsensical strategy.

[A] promise to reject those policies—and to move back from the Clinton-era status quo—might appeal to black Americans whose communities have been harmed by mass incarceration. Indeed, it might even be the ingredient that helps Clinton energize black voters and engage a vital part of the Obama coalition. In which case, would she reject that part of her husband’s legacy?

If Hillary’s overarching political task is capturing the Obama coalition while distinguishing herself from him and Bill, the obvious answer to that question is yes, she must. A Hillary Clinton who ran as a political corrective to both presidencies—who refused to pander to social conservatives or bend to Republicans in Congress—might preclude liberal challengers and do well in the general election.

Realize That Running Against Bill Clinton Is Different Than Governing Against Bill Clinton

Molly Ball notes that people will likely not only examine how Hillary’s policy statements differ from the former president’s, but how her theory of governing differs. They’ve both been known to compromise when needed — something that helps get laws passed — but not please your party’s most fervent supporters. 

What’s the significance of Hillary Clinton’s departures from her husband’s policies? They may serve to remind liberals how frequently Bill Clinton, when he was president, was willing to compromise liberal stances in the service of getting things done—stoking Democrats’ fears that, however progressive Hillary Clinton sounds now, she might not govern that way in practice. Hillary Clinton’s record in the Senate was likewise that of a dealmaker, and since leaving the State Department and reentering politics, she’s talked about trying to break out of the gridlock of the current era. That’s going to mean working with Republicans, and potentially agreeing to deals that fall far short of the policies liberals would like to see.

Accept That the Election Season Is Very Long and People Will Start Searching Past the ’90s

There are months until the primaries begin, and many, many reporters trying to find new things to say about Hillary Clinton. Her record on crime and immigration go far beyond what her husband had to say on the topic, as an exhaustive guide to Clinton’s past statements and actions on crime from the Marshall Project show

But Hillary is not Bill, and her history on these issues is more nuanced than simply cheerleading for her husband’s “tough on crime” approach. It is the story of a Barry Goldwater supporter who became a fighter for prisoners on death row who became a tough-on-crime First Lady who became a senator with a very mixed record who is now embracing the language of reform without yet offering much in the way of concrete proposals – apart from a largely uncontroversial suggestion that all police officers be equipped with body cameras.

What to do about Bill” is only one of the many variables that will need to be assessed and tweaked as she presents herself to voters. There’s also, “What to do about Obama?” “What to do about Senator Hillary Clinton?” “What to do about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?” “What to do about 2008 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton?” Having to juggle a handful of different pasts in one campaign — tossing aside some, championing others — is not easy, especially when each one inspires a different reaction among different constituencies and is easily accessible in an age in which an archive of one’s past mistakes and triumphs is at everyone’s disposal, and can be easily arranged in a million ways that each tell a very different story.

And she’s definitely always going to find someone in the peanut gallery who says she made the wrong choice.