With Clinton faltering against an outsider again, it's time to put Bill front and centre
Published 19/01/2016 | 02:30
Former US President Bill Clinton looked in the mirror last week - and felt déjà vu all over again. Just like in 2008, his wife, Hillary, was struggling mightily against an unconsidered outsider for the Democratic nomination.
In 2008, it was first-term senator Barack Obama, just three years in national politics. This time it is a grizzled, New York-born senator called Bernie Sanders - who represents Vermont in the US Senate but still has a Brooklyn accent as thick as a Coney Island hot dog. He is also 75 years old.
Bill Clinton was mad. His déjà vu antenna reminded him that, back in 2007, when Obama entered the race, his instinct had been to go for the jugular against him right from the start and destroy his candidacy against his wife before it got airborne.
He was overruled and looked on helplessly as Obama, once a 20/1 outsider, won the Iowa caucuses and used it as a launch pad to defeat Hillary and become the first African-American president.
Now it was Sanders, who started at 3pc support and who was hopelessly outclassed in the first Democratic debate by Hillary - especially on foreign affairs, where Sanders looked completely at sea.
That was the opportunity, Bill Clinton told the campaign, to finish off Sanders before he tried to resurrect, Lazarus-style, just like Obama did.
Again, the campaign sidelined his advice - much to his chagrin. They simply did not see Sanders having anything like the political calibre of Obama and felt Hillary was wasting time trying to finish him off when he was so obviously collapsing on his own.
Except he wasn't. While all the attention was focused on the Trump brass band on the Republican side, Sanders began hitting a single theme - income inequality, that the rich had too much, and the middle and lower classes not enough.
He spoke passionately and knowledgeably on the issue and the Democratic Party, just as saddled with a sense of discontent as Republican voters, suddenly began to embrace him.
Hillary found herself losing support. As an excellent process politician, she could discuss policy until the cows came home.
But there was nothing exciting in that - no rallying cry for millions of Democrats who also feel deeply that the American dream has gone sour on them. Hillary, alas, does process and efficiency - not inspiration.
It is no coincidence that sometimes Donald Trump, the billionaire, and Bernie, the working-class hero, can sound exactly like each other as they catch that quicksilver sentiment of a nation where millions feel the new economy has left them all behind.
Hillary needs Bill who, at 70pc, has the highest approval rating of any politician in America. Efforts by Trump and others to link old sex scandals never caught fire, and Bill has drawn huge crowds in New Hampshire.
But inspirational as he is, he cannot replace Hillary - much and all as many Democrats would love to see it.
A poll in 'Politico' of around 250 political experts in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina - the early states - revealed that six in 10 voters, Democrats and Republicans, felt Bill Clinton was her strongest card.
"Like it or not, the connection to the Clinton years remains one of her greatest strengths," a South Carolina Democrat told the publication. "She needs to remember Al Gore - he shied away from the Clinton legacy and paid the price.
"If she wants to win, she needs to put the Big Dog front and centre," another South Carolina Democrat added. "As much as I have heartburn over her, if Bill Clinton asked me to jump off the top of Williams-Brice Stadium (the home of South Carolina football), I would probably do it."
The question is what happens if Hillary loses Iowa and New Hampshire? Of the two, Iowa would be the greater loss - as Sanders is practically the hometown candidate in New Hampshire, as he hails from neighbouring Vermont.
Losing both would send a sense of panic through the Democratic camp.
Sanders as the presidential candidate is a looming disaster for Democrats hoping to win back the US Senate, and maybe even the House, if the Republicans pick either of the current front-runners, Trump and Ted Cruz, who are anathema to the all-important independent voters.
The rumour is strengthening that former New York Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg may jump in as an independent if Hillary falters.
Even Vice President Joe Biden has been very political this last week, denigrating Hillary's chances and praising Sanders - though it is very hard to see how he could enter the race at this point.
Of course, if Hillary wins Iowa, which I predict she will, most of the confusion and unease will slip.
But the question is still going a-begging: why is Hillary unable to put away a 75-year-old senator carrying a socialist banner, which hasn't featured prominently in an American presidential race since socialist Robert La Follette won 16pc of the vote in 1924?
Clinton is suffering from being around a very long time - since 1992, to be exact - and a lack of a fresh set of priorities. A safe pair of hands, sure, but the American electorate is signalling furiously it wants something different and new.
Hillary has to hope that the electorate over the next 10 months will realise that, in a dangerous world, it's OK to flirt - but when you get to the ballot box you want a solid, smart woman who has proven competence and a successful record to run on.
No doubt Bill will be the one reinforcing that message.