Why Hillary Clinton needs Bill to step back

Hillary Clinton’s return to the living was almost flawless. Almost.

She unveiled her Twitter account (young and with-it), and referred knowingly to the pantsuit (mature and self-aware). She didn’t look tan (that would be too “Real Housewives of New Jersey”) but seemed rested (that’s what almost six months of downtime will do for you) and ready (returning to her animating issues of girls and early childhood through her Too Small to Fail initiative). She picked a rocking photo (dark shades, in the bulkhead seat of her secretary of State airplane, thumbing her BlackBerry).

The rollout uploaded Hillary 2.0 to the cloud. Now, she’s just one more regular person getting up every morning doing her job (as a partner in the Clinton Global Initiative) along with good works. Gone is the Clinton juggernaut, that unbeatable machine powered by her diesel-fueled husband that was defeated in 2008 by a fresh-faced junior senator from Illinois with an inferior organization but much more in the way of hope, change and a smile.

Her re-emergence had just one flaw. She didn’t keep her dog on the porch, a mistake so serious it could be disqualifying. She, of all people, knows how good Bill Clinton can be, and how bad. So why did she choose to revive her brand during the weeklong annual celebration of his Global Initiative, surrounded by his cast and on his turf? Why not wait until her husband was off in Malawi or somewhere to announce that his sustainable agriculture initiative had brought about a 30 percent increase in soybean yields?

It was inevitable that Bill Clinton was going to be heady with all the attention last week, and thus bound to make his own headlines. One of the former president’s weaknesses is to love the one he’s with. He got carried away: Appearing at an event with his wife’s nemesis, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the former president volunteered that President Barack Obama looked like a “wuss” and a “fool,” and was being “lame” with his inaction on Syria.

Even George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have more respect for the office. Is Bill Clinton still angry about 2008? Worse, is Hillary? She worked hard to become the loyal secretary of State who put away hard feelings to serve her country and president. Is she secretly still harboring resentment over her defeat, which her husband can’t help but express?

Clearly, before returning to prime time, Hillary Clinton needs not only to manage expectations but also to show she can manage her husband, a manipulation that makes dealing with Vladimir Putin look easy by comparison. On balance, Bill Clinton has been very good for Hillary. Sexist though it may be to say, he did bring her to the party. She might have become governor of Arkansas and president in a fairer world, but fair politics is not.

Bill Clinton knew he needed a smart mate and acknowledged as much in his awkward two-for-the-price-of-one formulation in 1992. He gave her an office in the West Wing and, for better or worse, put her in charge of the healthcare portfolio.

For better (her) and worse (him), he gave her impeachment and soaring poll numbers for sticking by her man. She ran with those, becoming the first first lady to move out of the White House a year early to run for the Senate in a state she’d only visited as a tourist. She proved to be an excellent politician. She would have won the New York seat even if her weak opponent hadn’t self-destructed by striding menacingly across the stage in a debate.

The Senate was the intermediate step she needed to make the unprecedented journey from FLOTUS to POTUS. Otherwise, she would look like a widow (Muriel Humphrey) or worse, Isabel Peron, filling the shoes of a missing husband by default.

But will it be enough? Bill Clinton didn’t help her become president in 2008, and he won’t be much help in 2016, except as a warm, supportive presence who, in our imagination, will inhabit the East Wing as a benign elder statesman, giving gentle advice only when prodded.

Alas, there’s no sign he would go along with the script, and any ad-libbing would hurt. We elect one person, not two — Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton’s high White House profiles notwithstanding. Bill Clinton is now beloved — achieving a comeback no one thought possible. If he meddles in his wife’s 2016 campaign the way he did in 2008, he could lose his hard-won halo. If she lets him meddle, she will go down with him.

He will always loom. What didn’t drive them apart made their marriage stronger. But one thing he hasn’t learned is how to stand by his woman without standing in her way, blocking our view.

So thank you, Bill, for all you’ve done. Now for all womankind, and for the sake of the TBD at the end of Hillary’s Twitter profile, could you go where no man has gone before, except perhaps Denis Thatcher, and take one step back and to the side?

She can’t do this with you.

© 2013, Bloomberg News

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