the national interest

The Myth of Bill Clinton, Political Genius

Former President Bill Clinton speaks during U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin's annual fundraising Steak Fry, Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014, in Indianola, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP/Corbis

That Bill Clinton is a political savant, possessed both of rare oratorical gifts and granular insight of the electoral arts, is an oft-repeated fact. The Clintons’ visit to Iowa has prompted another chance to repeat the legend, which has only grown over time. John McCormick, Mark Halperin, and Jonathan Allen report for Bloomberg that the former president was once again “demonstrating his mastery of minutiae to advise on how to win tough races.” Let us watch the master at work:

“Just keep hitting him, I think, you know, and be positive, too,” Clinton told Bloomberg Politics Managing Editor Mark Halperin when asked what Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes must do in Kentucky to beat Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader. “She needs to be positive and draw a contrast.”

That sounds … kind of obvious, doesn’t it? Having both a positive and a negative message is basically what all candidates for office do. And yet the breathless reporters follow up this banal recitation of campaign boilerplate with more hyperbolic praise (“‘In the art of politics he’s Michelangelo, and in the science of politics he is Einstein,’ said Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist close to the Clintons.”)

The article proceeds to report that Clinton “follows politics closely and is known to have an encyclopedic knowledge of polling and demographic data.” It goes on to quote him holding forth on Mark Pryor’s race in Arkansas:

I think Pryor has really played his hand well, and I still believe that he will probably win, if we get the turnout,” he said. “I’ve studied all the polls and I really believe that we’re still in a zone where they’re all real close and it depends on who decides to show.

So … it’s a close race and it all comes down to turnout. Everybody knows that.

Clinton likewise holds forth on Georgia: “African-Americans are as under-registered in Georgia, historically, as Hispanics are in Texas” — which truly is a fascinating piece of data. Except it appears to be completely wrong. According to the Census Bureau, the black registration rate in Georgia in 2012 was slightly over 69 percent, while the Latino registration rate in Texas was under 39 percent. [Update: I was looking at the total registration column, but the relevant figure is registration among citizens. Those figures are 72% of African-Americans citizens in Georgia and 55% of Latino citizens in Texas are registered, so the point holds.] That’s not even close to the same.

The idea that Bill Clinton possesses unique political talent has been disseminated both by Clinton and his enemies for years. It appeals to both of them, for different reasons. Conservatives are happy to attribute his success to Clinton’s mystical black magic, rather than to any shortcomings of their own agenda. And Clinton himself has every incentive to attribute the credit for his victories to his own unique skills, which just so happen to be available to his party once again if it returns the Clinton family to the top of the ticket.

He defeated the two most potent presidential candidates ever assembled – at the same time! Photo: Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

And little about Clinton’s political career needs to be explained by political brilliance. He did win in 1992 during a long period of Republican domination of presidential elections, when the terms of political debate favored conservatism. But he won that race against an unpopular incumbent during a recession, with a third-party candidate taking more votes from his opponent. He then proved a liability during the 2008 primary by repeatedly alienating Democrats with his public comments. And if he did possess encyclopedic knowledge of polling and demographic data, he failed to share it with his wife’s campaign, which based its strategy on a factually incorrect understanding of how delegates were allocated.

Clinton does give a good speech, and he does retain more pull than Barack Obama or most Democrats with marginal Democratic constituencies. He also follows politics closely. Beyond that, is there any actual reason to believe the story of Clinton as political impresario is anything more than a mutually convenient myth?

The Myth of Bill Clinton, Political Genius