As Bill and Hillary Clinton campaigned in Iowa last week to put themselves back in the White House, a Democratic strategist warned their two-for-one strategy had trouble written all over it.
Dropping any pretense of seeking the presidency in her own right, Hillary and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, campaigned arm in arm in a Fourth of July swing through the first caucus state. The New York senator "embraced the role of virtual incumbent... promising to restore conditions — in the economy and in the government — to the way they were during her husband's administration," The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut reported.
At a rally in Waterloo, the Clintons were introduced as "the once and future presidents," and Democrats saw in their joint appearance a calculated decision to run as co-presidents seeking restoration of the Clinton dynasty.
But even before the Clintons set foot in Iowa, Donna Brazile, a longtime party official who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000, warned bluntly that their strategy could be a political disaster for the Democrats in 2008.
Bill Clinton's active campaign role in his wife's bid for the presidency could "end up doing more harm than good," Miss Brazile wrote last week in a widely read column in Roll Call newspaper.
"With Bill on the stump for anything other than fund-raising, the message becomes 'Restore the Clinton Regime — Things Were Better Then," she said. "Not only does that undercut her candidacy by making voters question which Clinton they are electing, it repositions the campaign in the decidedly wrong direction: looking backward," the veteran party insider added.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Hillary's strongest rival, who was also campaigning in Iowa, pounced on the "backward" theme in Miss Brazile's column.
While praising Bill Clinton, who remains wildly popular in his party, as a "terrific political strategist," Mr. Obama criticized the Clintons' strategy and, in a thinly veiled reference, seemed to remind Democrats of the deep divisions the Clinton administration had spawned through eight years of scandals.
"What we're more interested in is looking forward, not in looking backward. I think the American people feel the same way. What they are looking for is a way to break out of the harsh partisanship and the old arguments — and to solve problems," he told the Associated Press on the campaign trail.
Several motivations went into Hillary's decision to bring her husband into the campaign at this early juncture in the nomination race.
The first is her weakness in Iowa, where former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, her party's 2004 vice-presidential nominee, continues to lead among Democrats. That sets up a loss in the first contest of 2008 that could cut into her front-runner status, opening a narrow opportunity for her nearest rivals.
The second is her persistently high negatives, as measured by polls that ask voters whether they have a favorable or unfavorable view of each of the candidates. Her unfavorable scores are in the mid-40s nationally, but climb close to 50 in several battleground states, raising fears about her electability.
Miss Brazile, who has staked out a new role as an independent voice who knows more about minority turnout than anyone, has the heft to criticize her party's front-runner without alienating its base. Her criticism rippled through Democratic ranks last week with the speed of an e-mail message.
She sought to disabuse Hillary's strategists of the notion Bill can be the winning factor in her campaign. On the contrary, he can help raise a lot of money and perhaps even boost voter turnout a little, but he cannot win the election for her, Miss Brazile said. "In the end, it's all about Hillary Clinton — not the other Clinton," she said.
Then there is Hillary's posture as a Washington insider, part and parcel of the government establishment. That is not a good position to hold when voters want someone to come in from the outside to sweep out the old established order. "All signs point to voters electing an experienced outsider to take control of Washington — an area [in which] Bill Clinton won't be helpful," Miss Brazile said. "She must inspire us to win and show us that she can lead us out of this dismal state of gridlock. If she can't do that on her own, then no one, not even Bill, can save her," she said.
Last week, Hillary seemed to send a message that she can't do it on her own, that her husband will help her make the decisions and that the "change" she wants is to restore both of them in the presidency.
Miss Brazile, a Democrat who is tightly plugged into the party's base, thinks that kind of campaign would be the kiss of death for the Democrats in 2008. Mr. Obama thinks so, too.
Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.