I find it interesting that the New York Times hosted two op-ed pieces this weekend on the same topic, one on Saturday from Gary Wills, professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University, the other on Sunday from regular op-ed columnist Frank Rich. The topic is whether a vote for Hillary Clinton is also a vote for Bill — whether a Hillary presidency would really be a shared white house, a “plural presidency”, as Professor Wills puts it:
But there can be no doubt that her husband had the presidential experience, fully. He has shown during his wife’s campaign that he is a person of initiative and energy. Does anyone expect him not to use his experience in an energetic way if he re-enters the White House as the first spouse?
Mrs. Clinton claims that her time in that role was an active one. He can hardly be expected to show less involvement when he returns to the scene of his time in power as the resident expert. He is not the kind to be a potted plant in the White House.
Which raises an important matter. Do we really want a plural presidency?
Professor Wills goes on to describe concepts of an official plural presidency that were rejected in the formation of the United States, and the issue of Dick Cheney’s role in the Bush presidency. He concludes that because of the need to recover from Bush/Cheney, and the danger of Bill Clinton’s involving himself overmuch, it would be a bad idea to elect Hillary Clinton as “another co-president in the White House.”
In a longer column, Mr Rich describes the Clinton campaign as one for “Billary, the joint Clinton candidacy”.
What has gone unspoken is this: Up until this moment, Hillary has successfully deflected rough questions about Bill by saying, “I’m running on my own” or, as she snapped at Barack Obama in the last debate, “Well, I’m here; he’s not.” This sleight of hand became officially inoperative once her husband became a co-candidate, even to the point of taking over entirely when she vacated South Carolina last week. With “two for the price of one” back as the unabashed modus operandi, both Clintons are in play.
For the most part, Mr Rich is addressing whether Senator Clinton can win the election with President Clinton as her campaign partner, and he spends a lot of time criticizing Bill’s refusal to disclose the names of contributor’s to his presidential library and Hillary’s deferral to him on the matter. But he finishes with this:
Any Democrat who seriously thinks that Bill will fade away if Hillary wins the nomination — let alone that the Clintons will escape being fully vetted — is a Democrat who, as the man said, believes in fairy tales.It’s not clear, here, whether Mr Rich is just worried about the final election that this point, or whether he, too, fears giving Bill the opportunity to do more in the White House than choose curtains.
We don’t worry in any other election about what the candidate’s spouse will bring to the White House, or will do while there. George Bush 43 could have been thought to be bringing his dad, George Bush 41, back — though, as it turned out, he didn’t ask him for advice when he should have done — but no one seriously raised concerns about that. Other presidents have had some colourful family ties (Ronald Reagan’s daughter Maureen was a Republican activist and campaigned for U.S. Senate while her father was president; his son Michael was also a mover in the Republican party; his daughter Patti famously fought with her father on political issues). We never thought these should affect the elections.
Of course, this is the first time we’ve had to deal with a spouse who’s a former president. That aspect makes it hard to know whether there’s a bit of sexism in here or not — would we be worried about this if it were the other way around? — and so I’ll assume there isn’t. Whatever question I have about Hillary Clinton, I do see her as a strong-enough leader that I have no concern that her husband will be taking over.
Apart from that, every president appoints a cabinet and associates with a plethora of advisors, both formal and informal. Do we not think that any president might rely on one or two advisors more than we’d like (as, for example, George Bush did with Karl Rove)? Maybe so, maybe not... but we don’t vote based on who the candidate’s friends are, and who s/he might take advice from.
This is more of the “for the wrong reason” stuff I’ve talked about before. Whether we do or don’t like Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate is something we have to decide by looking at Hillary Clinton, not by speculating what part her husband will play in her presidency.