The potential payoff for Clinton is more ineffable but no less substantial. Last time around, recall, Obama’s candidacy was based in part on the consignment of Clintonism to the dustbin of history. But now, with Obama running unabashedly as the inheritor of that creed, 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. Speculation on that topic is rife within the Clinton diaspora; no one has a clue as to whether or not Hillary will run. But, equally, no one doubts that her husband dearly wants her to—mainly because, among members of the tribe, he can’t shut up about it.
Clintonism isn’t the only thing being rejuvenated here, however. What’s taking place is the revivification—and the Godzilla-scale enlargement—of Clinton himself. In 2008, a not insignificant number of white liberals and African-Americans assailed him as, if not a racist, a race-baiter; he was battered and bruised, scalded and scarred, mired in self-pity. But in 2012, he has emerged as the Democrats’ own Dutch: revered by his party, respected so much by the GOP that it dare not cross him, sanctified by the great heaving middle.
The irony, and it is thick as porridge, is that the instrument of this transformation has been the younger man whom Clinton once scorned as a usurper—acting with a degree of cold calculation that the elder cannot help but admire. “Obama engineered this reconciliation, and I think the whole time he was, like, ‘Why do I have to do this?’ ” says Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress and a former adviser to both Hillary and Obama. “He did it because he wanted to win, and this was the way to do it. But in the process, he’s made Bill Clinton the king of the world.”
Clinton, to be sure, has experienced regnant periods before, and every time they presaged a precipitous and self-inflicted fall. As his biographer David Maraniss has observed, Clinton’s life is a ceaseless cycle of triumph, disgrace, and redemption—up and down, up and down, wash, rinse, and repeat. Among those in Clinton’s orbit, the salient question is whether, at long last, the cycle has been broken. Or will the Maximum Canine, having shed his leash, soon find himself in the doghouse again?
A few hours before Obama ambled on to the debate stage in Denver, Clinton was 2,026 miles away, taking the podium on the president’s behalf in the Field House at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. The speech Clinton uncorked inside the packed gymnasium was mostly an abbreviated reprise of his convention stemwinder. But it contained one new riff that, by the end of the night, millions of Democrats would find themselves wishing had come from Obama’s mouth instead.
“I couldn’t believe it the other day when the president’s opponent said that the 47 percent of American people who don’t pay income tax just wanna hang around and be dependent on the government and, you know, we just had to wean them off that because they didn’t wanna pay income tax,” Clinton said. “Now, a guy with a tax account in the Cayman Islands is attacking other people for not wanting to [pay taxes]? I mean, you gotta give him credit—like I said, that’s like Congressman Ryan attacking Barack Obama for having the same Medicare savings he did. When you really bust somebody for doing what you did, it takes a lot of gall, you know? But lemme tell you who those 47 percent are … Most of them are families who work.”
Clinton could not have looked giddier—jabbing the air with his thumb, unfurling his trademark finger rolls and open-palmed laments, his face so flushed it looked as if butter would have melted on his forehead. New Hampshire, of course, is a special place for Clinton, the environs where, in 1992, he’d gloried in campaigning “until the last dog dies” and earned the sobriquet “the Comeback Kid.” But the Granite State is also where, in 2008, his self-immolation began with his railing against Obama’s Iraq War record as a “fairy tale.” From then on, it was all downhill: the rope-line explosion in South Carolina, the comparison of Obama’s victory in the Democratic primary there to that of Jesse Jackson’s in 1988, the refusal, on the eve of their party’s convention, to affirm that Obama was ready to be commander-in-chief.
To Obama, this behavior was a stark affirmation of the critique he had been offering of Clintonism: that it was based on “calculation, not conviction”; that it was polarizing, not unifying; that it was self-serving and ignoble. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama had written that the partisan wars of the Clinton years were an outgrowth of baby boomer “psychodrama.” Watching WJC lose his mind in 2008, BHO thought, QED.