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Responder-in-chief: A familiar role for Bill Clinton

By Dan Merica, CNN
updated 4:22 PM EDT, Thu May 15, 2014
  • It was no surprise that Bill Clinton responded to Karl Rove's attack on his wife
  • Rove, the GOP strategist, questioned Hillary Clinton's injuries in a 2012 fall
  • Bill Clinton's response suggested that there was more where that came from

Washington (CNN) -- Bill Clinton has never had a problem getting into the muck of politics.

Since leaving the White House in 2001 and stepping into the role of the Democrats' elder statesman, the former President has continually shown why he rose from humble roots in rural Arkansas to president of the United States in the first place: his political chops and willingness to use them.

So when Karl Rove, the uber-Republican strategist, floated questions about Hillary Clinton's health, it was no surprise that Bill Clinton was the one to respond from "Clintonland," not Hillary.

"I've got to give him credit," Clinton said of Rove on Wednesday at an event in Washington. "That embodies that old saying that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. First they said she faked her concussion. And now they say she's auditioning for a part on 'The Walking Dead.'"

Bill Clinton went on to say he was "sort of dumbfounded" by the fact that Rove reportedly hinted last week that Hillary Clinton may have suffered a "traumatic brain injury" when she fell and suffered a concussion in December 2012. As a result of the fall, she suffered a blood clot in a vein between her skull and brain and was treated at a New York City hospital for three days.

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Bill Clinton said he had no questions about his wife's health.

"Look, she works out every week, she is strong, she's doing great. As far as I can tell she's in better shape than I am. She certainly seems to have more stamina now," he said. "I don't know but if it is you can't be too upset about it. It is just the beginning. They'll get better at it. I am still waiting for them to admit there was nothing to Whitewater."

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Clinton's response was mild, but there were undertones that there was more where that came from. According to one of the former President's advisers, he considered Rove's comments a weak attack.

"So stupid as to be a low hanging curve ball," the adviser told CNN's Jake Tapper.

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Notably, however, Hillary Clinton -- who has tried to remain above politics while she weighs a possible White House run -- remained mum about the kerfuffle.

At two events in Washington on Wednesday -- one to a prominent Jewish group and another at the World Bank -- the former first lady didn't come close to addressing the Rove questions and instead left the job of responder-in-chief to her husband.

The role is a familiar one for Bill Clinton.

"I think he says whatever he wants whenever he wants to," Richard Socarides, a former Clinton White House adviser, told CNN's "New Day" on Thursday. "I think it is natural."

Since his wife agreed to become America's top diplomat in early 2009 and now that she is weighing a run at the presidency, Bill Clinton has rarely shied away from getting into the political fray.

He endorsed candidates who helped with his wife's 2008 presidential run and looked to bury those who crossed the Clintons during that failed campaign.

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Bill Clinton's role is put into full perspective in "HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton," a book by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes that details Hillary Clinton's time at the State Department.

According to the authors, Jason Altmire, a former congressman from Pennsylvania, was the epitome of Bill Clinton's political retribution.

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"If there was a poster boy for the betrayal-and-revenge narrative, it was Altmire, a tall, broad-shouldered former Florida State University football player who had won his western Pennsylvania House seat in the midterm Democratic landslide of 2006," the authors wrote, before describing the lengths the Clintons went to in the run up to the 2008 election to win over the congressman.

When Altmire decided not to endorse anyone, the congressman was blacklisted and earned Bill Clinton's ire.

"The bill for Altmire's neutrality would come due nearly four years later, to the day, in the 2012 Pennsylvania Democratic primary," write Parnes and Allen, when the former President choose to endorse Mark Critz over Altmire.

When Critz went on to win the primary, his victory was largely attributed to two things: His strong labor support and the endorsement he picked up from Bill Clinton.

Although Altmire's anecdote is a colorful example, the story is not totally unique.

On Wednesday, for example, the former President endorsed Maryland gubernatorial hopeful Anthony Brown over his top challenger, Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler.

Bill Clinton touted Brown's record and notes that he felt "enormous affection" for him.

Not surprisingly, Brown was a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton's failed 2008 bid and traveled to a number of states on the campaign's behalf. Gansler, on the other hand, was a proud supporter of Barack Obama and co-chaired his 2008 primary campaign in Maryland.

Bill Clinton's support was so potent that when the Brown campaign announced it in April, Gansler felt it necessary to issue a statement that spelled out his "respect" for the former President and his strong support for Hillary Clinton, "should she choose to run" in 2016.

Whether Hillary Clinton will run is not the only question facing the Clintons right now, though. In order for her to be successful, a number of Democratic strategists have said, Bill Clinton's role will also have to be defined.

In 2008, Clinton was a staple of the campaign trail and while he was a prolific fundraiser and campaigner, he also had a few notable blowups as things went sour.

Republicans -- some of whom would probably like to see less of Bill Clinton -- suggest that he would be a political liability for a Clinton campaign.

"Hillary Clinton cannot hide behind her husband on this. It was an interesting decision, if it was one, to have him come out and say anything," said Cheri Jacobus, a Republican strategist, about Bill Clinton's response to Rove. "I think they need to really pull Bill Clinton back. He is not as good at this now as he used to be."

Democrats scoff at that assertion and point out that other than Hillary Clinton herself, the former chief executive is probably the one closest to her thinking on political issues and whether or not she will run.

Socarides responded to Jacobus with this: "I don't think we will be taking your advice."

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