For the second time in less than a week, Bill Clinton has undercut President Obama's re-election campaign by pushing policies that directly contradict Obama's stated positions. Nobody doubts that the "Comeback Kid" is a legendary campaigner, and the Obama campaign surely appreciates the $3 million he helped raise this week, but first and foremost, Clinton is a better campaigner for himself than others.
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Clinton's latest "gaffe" stems from an interview he gave on CNBC yesterday in which he advocated an extension of all the Bush-era tax cuts. "That's probably the best thing to do right now," he told Maria Bartiromo. "I don't have a problem with extending all of it now." Of course, that's the exact opposite of Obama's position that the tax cuts should expire for high-income Americans, which he mentions frequently in his campaign speeches and is the stated Democratic party strategy outlined by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last month. Clinton's reps tried to take it back but it didn't come soon enough for House Speaker John Boehner's staff to run with it. "The fact that former President Clinton supports stopping all of the tax hikes scheduled for January 1 is very, very big news," his spokesman said, somewhat disingenuously.
The rogue remarks of course followed an interview he gave with CNN last week, describing Mitt Romney's business career as "stellar." The glowing review couldn't be more discordant with the Obama campaign's messaging, which has been running TV spots with average Joes calling Romney's former company Bain Capital a "vampire" that "sucked the blood out of us."
So what's going on with the best Democratic politician "in the last quarter century"? The trick is that being a surrogate and being a candidate are very different things. Hillary Clinton had to learn this the hard way during her campaign for the presidency in 2008. As Politico's Roger Simon pointed out the other day, Bill probably hurt her more than helped in that campaign:
He made one of the biggest strategic mistakes of her entire campaign: He insisted she seriously compete in South Carolina. Hillary’s staff wanted to spend its time and resources elsewhere, judging that South Carolina, with its large black electorate, was unwinnable.
But Bill felt that with his Southern roots and proven appeal to black voters, Hillary could beat Obama there. And Bill campaigned all-out. At Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., an angry, finger-wagging Bill had called Obama’s campaign a “fairy tale.” Jim Clyburn, a highly respected black congressman from South Carolina, felt insulted and publicly told Bill to “chill a little bit” and “tone it down.”
Obama would end up clobbering Clinton in South Carolina by nearly 30 points. When Bill tried dismissing the win, noting that "Jesse Jackson won South Caroline in '84 and '88," it gave rise to a news cycle that the he was using "race-baiting" to boost his wife's campaign.
The trouble with Bill is, he will tack right and triangulate even when he's out of office. (Watch him last summer making the moves on Paul Ryan behind the scenes at a Pete Peterson Foundation event.) He's always been somewhat of a political chameleon so it shouldn't come as a surprise that he becomes a lover of Bush tax cuts during an interview with a business reporter on a business-friendly network. While that smooth slipperiness worked great for him as a centrist politician, it doesn't work great for other campaigns with tightly-controlled messages to deliver. This won't be the last Clinton gaffe of the election cycle.