The Complicated Legacy of Bill Clinton

President Bill Clinton is his wife's not-so-secret weapon -- the single most popular Democrat on the planet, a campaigner who ranks with the all-time greats, and one of the best political minds in the country.

But, as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is learning every week, his legacy can be a mixed blessing -- a reminder of peace, prosperity and Democratic victories, but also of scandal, gridlock and "triangulation" that frustrated many liberals.

On the campaign trail Thursday, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards delivered a speech filled with coded language aimed at reminding Democratic voters of the less-than-pleasant aspects of the Clinton administration.

"The American people deserve to know that their presidency is not for sale, the Lincoln bedroom is not for rent, and lobbyist money can no longer influence policy in the House or the Senate," Edwards said in Hanover, N.H., in a not-so-subtle reference to a famous fundraising scandal.

"The trouble with nostalgia is that you tend to remember what you liked and forget what you didn't," Edwards continued. "It's not just that the answers of the past aren't up to the job today -- it's that the system that produced them was corrupt."

The Clinton campaign dismissed the thinly veiled swipes as a ploy by a desperate candidate.

"Running against Bill Clinton isn't going to improve Mr. Edwards' flagging campaign," said Howard Wolfson, a Clinton campaign spokesman.

"Bill Clinton was a great president, and his presidency made America a better place," said Wolfson.

But it's not the first time that Clinton has been confronted with aspects of her husband's presidency that many Democrats view unfavorably. At recent presidential forums, she's faced pointed questions about the failure of her health care plan, her husband's support of NAFTA -- which is loathed by labor groups -- and Bill Clinton's decision to sign the Defense of Marriage Act, which many gays and lesbians consider an affront to equal rights.

In several areas, Clinton has distanced herself from steps taken under her husband's administration. She has vowed to support a partial repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, for instance. She has also expressed disappointment in NAFTA, and said she would rescind the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prevents gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

"I've concluded that it is not the best way for us as a nation to proceed," Clinton said when asked about "don't ask, don't tell" at a Democratic debate in June.

Clinton is also facing growing questions from Democrats and Republicans about whether she's too polarizing a figure to be elected president -- questions that are closely linked to the perceptions many voters formed of her during her eight years as first lady.

Karl Rove has called her a "fatally flawed" candidate because of the high disapproval ratings she entered the campaign with. And some Democrats have expressed fear that if Clinton wins the nomination, she could harm the electoral prospects of Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.

"It's not my personal feeling at all about her, but there is a high level of antagonism felt on the Republican side for the Clintons, and that includes Hillary," said Steven Achelpohl, chairman of the Nebraska Democratic Party.

"I would anticipate that that would have significant turnout consequences for Democrats. I love Hillary to death, and I think she'd be a great president, but that would be the practical effect if she's the nominee," he added. "It's kind of the way Democrats feel about Rush Limbaugh -- it's a visceral dislike Republicans have for Hillary and Bill Clinton. It is what it is."

On the campaign trail, Clinton has not been shy about reminding voters of her time in the White House. Her core argument -- that she has the experience to assume the presidency without a learning curve -- is based almost entirely on her work alongside her husband from 1993 through 2001.

And Bill Clinton has campaigned alongside his wife in New Hampshire and Iowa, arguing for a return to the type of policies adopted during his administration.

"Yesterday's news was pretty good," the former president said last month in Iowa. "We've almost got to restart the 21st Century now, and . . . you should want someone in the White House who has very new ideas, but who keeps score the old-fashioned way."

Clinton aides point out that the former president remains enormously popular with the Democratic base. A February ABC News/Washington Post found that 80 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of all voters had a positive impression of President Clinton; those numbers were slightly better than his wife's, who was viewed favorably by 74 percent of Democrats polled, and by 49 percent of the public at large.

But by the end of his presidency, Clinton was viewed as such a political liability that his vice president, Al Gore, minimized his exposure on the campaign trail. And his wife's time on the trail has revealed some Democrats' complicated feelings toward the Clintons.

Two weeks ago, at a forum sponsored by the gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign, singer Melissa Etheridge expressed disappointment in the lack of progress on gay-rights issues during the Clinton administration.

"It was a very hopeful time for the gay community," Etheridge said. "And in the years that followed, our hearts were broken. We were thrown under the bus. We were pushed aside -- all those great promises that were made to us were broken."

The question seemed to surprise Clinton, who defended her husband's record on gay rights and said she would fight for more progress.

"We certainly didn't get as much done as I would have liked, but I believe that there was a lot of honest effort going on," she said. "I think I am a leader now."

Edwards and other Democrats know that Clinton's White House years -- while, on balance, an advantage for her -- present certain liabilities, said Dennis Goldford, a politics professor at Drake University in Iowa.

"All was not sweetness and light in the Clinton years," Goldford said. "All of that's out there, and despite the warm afterglow, there's a lot of contentious stuff about the Clinton years that's easy to forget. But it's going to come back."