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The Story Never Ends: Bill & Hillary & Barack & America

All together: Former President Bill Clinton, then-Sen. HIllary Rodham Clinton and then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama in Cleveland on Aug. 30, 2008. 
Alex Brandon
All together: Former President Bill Clinton, then-Sen. HIllary Rodham Clinton and then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama in Cleveland on Aug. 30, 2008. 

As Democrats campaign furiously to contain their losses in this midterm election season, two familiar names dominate their effort and their future.

The names of course are Obama and Clinton: Two names, three politicians monumentally ambitious in different ways, and one unending psychodrama for their party and country.

President Obama this fall is both the featured performer-fundraiser for Democrats and the featured target in attack ads aired by Republicans and their allied organizations.


But right behind him on the campaign trail is Bill Clinton, the former president whose relationship to his party has been through every conceivable permutation over the past two decades. He has been rising star, breakthrough candidate, millstone, conundrum, pariah, rallying point, comeback kid and gray eminence -- with encore performances in some roles.

Now he's back as the hardest-hitting road warrior the beleaguered Democrats have in this season of travail.  That's why he'll be in California this weekend for his old rival Jerry Brown, now running for another go at the governorship.

After that, Clinton will head for Washington state to shore up Patty Murray, a Democrat first elected to the Senate on the same day Clinton won the presidency in 1992. Obama will be in the state three days later.

These two men have not always been teammates, of course. Two years ago,  Bill Clinton was doing everything he could to prevent Barack Obama from swiping the party's presidential nomination from Hillary Clinton. As that prize slipped from her grasp in the early primary states, her husband engaged fiercely in the fight. Candidate Obama even complained in one debate that he didn't known which Clinton he was really running against sometimes.


Bill Clinton told one audience that Obama's campaign was "the biggest fairy tale you heard in your life." And there was that egregious moment when he told reporters in South Carolina that the big Obama win there meant no more than Jesse Jackson's showings in the same state in 1984 and 1988.

But in politics, even the unkindest cuts can sometimes be forgotten -- at least for the moment. Now, the Man from Hope appears everywhere as an ally of the "hope and change" president. Now, the ex-president defends the new president on all issues, foreign and domestic. He attacks Republicans relentlessly and without remorse. And he does it all with that smiling ease and flourish that defies you to say he ever felt any other way.

In short, Clinton is everything he never was for Democratic candidates when he himself was president. In 1994, the first-term president was anathema in his native South, as well as in rural and ex-urban districts. The Democrats lost 52 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate, giving up control of both chambers for the first time in 40 years and kissing goodbye to a dozen governorships to boot.

Clinton wasn't much more help to his party in the next three cycles, either. In his re-election campaign he pushed off from his own party nearly as often as he did from the Republicans. Two years later, embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky fiasco and about to be impeached for perjury, Clinton could scarcely be called an asset on the stump in the 1998 midterms.

Even in 2000, when his approval numbers were pretty good, Clinton was largely sidelined. His own vice president, Al Gore, thought it better to turn the page than run on his predecessor's record.

Since then, of course, being ex-president has been very, very good to Bill Clinton. His book and speeches have made him wealthy for the first time in his life. His smooth and confident appearances in public (including well received orations at the 2004 and 2008 Democratic conventions) have restored some of his luster. His earnest advocacy of Hillary Clinton's campaign for president seemed to help him recover some of his standing among women voters.

Meanwhile, in recent months, Hillary herself has also been burnishing the Clinton credentials, most recently barnstorming through the Balkans juggling historically tricky issues and competing territorial demands. As secretary of State she has been an assured and disciplined diplomat, often described as the single most successful member of the Obama cabinet.

But there's not enough dignity in all this to kill the soap opera aspects of the Obama-Clinton relationship. The old juices were flowing again early this month when author Bob Woodward, plugging his latest book on a TV program, let it slip that the White House might engineer a job swap between Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden in 2012.

Okay, so maybe Biden would trade in his current round of thankless tasks for four prestigious years atop the foreign policy world. After all, Biden spent the peak years of his Senate career as the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

But the real focus of the job swap talk was Hillary Clinton. Everyone knows the Obama re-election effort could use a boost, especially the kind that Hillary could provide with women voters. Such a move would be even more attractive if the GOP puts a woman on its ticket in 2012.

Of course all the principals denied any such job swap scheme was being contemplated. But Woodward has a way of picking up things that no one else has heard and introducing them into reality almost by fiat. Don't be surprised if the Obama-Clinton idea returns again and again in the months ahead. It makes a certain amount of sense, and it makes even better blog posts.

Obama and his inner circle were said to have given short shrift to the notion of Hillary as running mate in 2008, in part because they feared the loose cannon tendencies of her husband.

If doubts about Bill Clinton were a major obstacle to a Barack-and-Hillary ticket in 2008, his redemption tour in 2010 has gone a long way toward dispelling those doubts. And that could mean the idea of Obama and Clinton as a team is more than a fairy tale.

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