Bill Clinton's Health Scare: What Does He Mean for Democrats?

Former president is not the center of the party but still enjoys some influence.

February 12, 2010, 11:48 AM

Feb. 12, 2010— -- For a fleeting moment this week, Bill Clinton was the center of the political universe again. It had been a while, and it might be a while before it happens again.

The former president's health scare shined a spotlight on the unique role of a unique individual. Clinton is no longer the focal point of the Democratic Party, a post he held in some fashion for a decade and a half.

But in a career marked by extremes, he retains the prestige -- if not the well-defined role -- he once enjoyed as president.

"The fact of the matter is, he is the only two-term Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt," presidential historian Richard Norton Smith said. "The fact is, he is the president who found the winning formula not only to win an election but then to govern. I think he's a guy who they [Democrats] see [as one] ... who brought them out of wilderness, someone who gave them a formula for winning reelections in a center-right country."

A year into the Obama presidency, with Clinton's wife serving as the nation's top diplomat and his former aides populating the top echelon of the administration and its outside advisers, the former president has popped up in high-profile ways sporadically.

To the relief of many of President Obama's supporters, the former president has largely stayed away from politics, and hasn't broken publicly with the current administration in any significant way.

Leaning on lessons learned from his own failures, Clinton, 63, was called on to rile up Democratic lawmakers on health care when negotiations were going sour. He made a secret trip to North Korea to bring back detained journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, with the blessing of the White House.

And, in addition to his extensive worldwide work through the William J. Clinton Foundation, he has led a high-profile relief effort in Haiti, joining forces with former President George W. Bush to help a country he has long adored.

"He still has a very important role as one of the elder figures of the party," Julian E. Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said. "When he makes the pitch about what Democrats need to do in health care, he elicits a certain amount of respect that few other Democrats do."

But in an era defined by a new, young Democratic president -- one with little love for Clinton and his style of politics -- the former president's influence is questionable.

"I think he does enjoy a degree of regard and respect across the country and so the Democrats use him for these humanitarian efforts and also to promote a degree of bipartisanship, which is what happens with ex-presidents," presidential historian Robert Dallek said. "But people in the polls, they're asking about President Obama and the current congressional leaders. They don't ask about Bill Clinton."

Bill Clinton's Relationship With Democrats

Democrats' relationship with Clinton is a complex one. The memories of his political follies are still fresh in their minds and they are fully aware of his ability to steal the spotlight. At the same time, they are also aware of his ability to rejuvenate the party, when needed.

"Many Democrats are having a sense of déjà vu and are turning to the person who was there before," Princeton's Zelizer said. "On the other [hand], they want to contain him. They're very nervous. They don't want him to overshadow the president. That's the danger with former presidents, especially with Bill Clinton, given his ability to really dominate the public stage."

A majority of Americans continue to rate Clinton well on his job performance, despite the scandals that marked his presidency, from 1993 to 2001. In an ABC News/Washington Post in 2008, 55 percent of those polled expressed a favorable view of him personally.

Clinton is not one to back down from his views, whether they are popular or not, a point that makes many Democrats nervous. He savored in campaigning for his wife in her presidential run despite the friction between him and some of her aides.

"You do get the sense privately he's chomping at the bit to get after and help the Democrats right now," Zelizer said. "He's kind of one step away from the campaign train, always."

He was bothered when Al Gore didn't make him the center of his 2000 presidential campaign, and although he accepted it, he never forgot, Zelizer said.

"He played ball but there's always this resentment he had that Democrats don't fully appreciate what he offers and what he thinks," he added.

Clinton is unlikely to slow down any time soon. His friends said he was on a conference call about aid to Haiti until right before the surgery Thursday, where doctors placed two stents in one of his coronaries.

"If anything, this will get President Clinton more energized," longtime Clinton friend Terry McAuliffe said on "Good Morning America" today. "To him, sleeping is taking time away from something he could be doing to help somebody."

Clinton is also likely to continue to be called on to unweave complicated situations, as was the case with health care. And even if he may not be front and center of key discussions in Washington, his legacy still remains alive with the cadre of former Clinton administration officials now working in the White House.

"I think the importance is not so much in his hands-on influence on Washington as it is the indirect influence of his legacy through people," Russell Riley, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs, said. "Rahm Emanuel wouldn't be where he was had it not been for his experience in the Clinton administration."

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