Bill Clinton: Asset or distraction?

Bill Clinton tries to clean up his Obamacare criticism
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    Bill Clinton tries to clean up his Obamacare criticism


Bill Clinton tries to clean up his Obamacare criticism 01:27

Story highlights

  • The 'good' Bill Clinton and the 'bad Bill Clinton' come in a single package
  • Clinton far more disciplined than in 2008 campaign
  • Questions about his role if Hillary Clinton wins White House

(CNN)The Secretary of Explaining Stuff sometimes explains stuff a little too well.

Bill Clinton, who earned his nickname from President Barack Obama after making a resounding case for his 2012 candidacy, is facing heat after showing the flip side of his political genius.
    Speaking at a Democratic rally this week in Flint, Michigan, Clinton offered a frank assessment of problems with the health care law that is Obama's signature domestic achievement, calling it "the craziest thing in the world."
    Clinton later sought to clean up the comments, but the resulting storm is renewing a debate that has flared throughout Hillary Clinton's political career: Is the 42nd President his wife's best asset or biggest distraction? Or both?
    Republicans, including Donald Trump, seized on the Obamacare remarks to claim that Clinton is his wife's worst surrogate, seeking to drive a wedge between Obama supporters and the current Democratic nominee who badly needs their votes.
    "Bill Clinton is right: Obamacare is 'crazy', 'doesn't work' and 'doesn't make sense'. Thanks Bill for telling the truth," Trump tweeted Wednesday.
    At a rally Wednesday evening in Reno, Nevada, Trump accused Hillary Clinton of wanting to "double down" on Obamacare.
    "This woman doesn't know what the hell she's doing," he said.

    Clinton's missteps

    To those who believe that the former President, who recently turned 70, has lost a political step, the Obamacare spat was another exhibit for the prosecution. After all, it was not the first time he veered off message during the 2016 campaign.
    His decision this summer to stride across the runway at the Phoenix airport to greet Attorney General Loretta Lynch sparked accusations he was trying to compromise the Justice Department's probe into his wife's private email server. Days of unflattering headlines and memories of Clinton's past scandals followed.
    Clinton also got into a fiery back-and-forth about criminal justice with a protestor at a rally in Philadelphia in another counter-productive moment.
    Allegations of ethical wrongdoing, and ghosts of his past infidelities, as well as more recent questions about the management of the Clinton Foundation, have given ammunition to Republicans keen to sideline the former president.
    All of this doesn't just add fuel to questions about Clinton's campaign role. It sparks intrigue about how a President Hillary Clinton would manage an active, sometimes outspoken and independent former president living in the White House.
    The latest Bill Clinton episode erupted in Flint, Michigan, on Monday.
    "So you've got this crazy system where all of a sudden 25 million more people have health care and then the people who are out there busting it, sometimes 60 hours a week, wind up with their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half. It's the craziest thing in the world," Clinton said.
    Although he tried to walk back his remarks on Tuesday and Wednesday, Republicans took the words "crazy" and "craziest" from his larger argument to proclaim Clinton just ripped into Obama's proudest achievement.
    On Wednesday in Ohio, Bill Clinton moderated his language on Obamacare but did not dilute his point.
    "I strongly supported that bill, and it's given more than 20 million people more insurance," Clinton said. "But there are problems with it. There are problems with it, and everybody knows it."

    Statement of fact

    It might have been a political gaffe. But Clinton's comment was a simple statement of a fact that everybody in politics understands.
    If Obamacare is to work and survive, like many laws after they are enacted, it must be adjusted for prevailing economic and social conditions. But with Republicans -- who voted more than 50 times to repeal the law -- in control of Congress, there is no chance of a simple overhaul.
    That means the law's fate depends on who wins in November.
    In that sense, Clinton's remarks, though they might have infuriated the White House, likely infuriated congressional Democrats running for re-election and embarrassed his wife's campaign, could represent an effort to create political distance for his wife at a time of rising premiums and deductibles that are coming due just as voters go to the polls.
    "He can be colorful but I think that really hit the point he was making, which is we've got to keep what's good and we've got to fix the problems," Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta said on "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer" this week.
    Indeed, the "good" Bill Clinton that can be a political gift to the campaign comes as a package with the undisciplined version. Patrick Maney, a Boston College historian who recently published a book about the Clinton presidency, which he dubbed "A New Gilded Age," disputed the idea that the Obamacare comments were a gaffe.
    "He will do things and you think he has lost a step and you think, 'Boy that was not a smart thing to do.' But then you think about it, you realize there is a really astute political mind at work there," Maney said.

    Positive role

    The latest Obamacare spat aside, it is easy to overlook the fact that Clinton actually has played a more positive role in the 2016 campaign than in his wife's bitter 2008 race against Obama. The former president's role in a racially charged, losing primary race with Obama left deep political wounds on all sides.
    But in politics, if not in life, Clinton learns from his mistakes.
    There has been no repeat of the competing power centers loyal to Clinton and his wife that were ruinous to her primary effort in 2008. And despite a few controversies, he's mostly been an effective behind-the-scenes player.
    "From everything I can tell, President Clinton has always been a good soldier to the best of his ability," said Joe Conason, author of the new book "Man of the World: The Further Endeavors of Bill Clinton." "It is not that he never makes a mistake but he does mostly what he is asked to do to the best of his ability."
    Following his controversial comments in the 2008 primary that were seen as a racially charged dismissal of Obama, Clinton spent years repairing his ties with South Carolina Democrats and other African American leaders. That helped build Hillary Clinton's unassailable Democratic bastion among black voters in 2016, which helped her build a wall against Bernie Sanders in the South during the primaries.
    After a few frosty years, Bill Clinton accepted the olive branch offered by Obama and made the case for the nation's first African-American President's re-election during the 2012 Democratic National Convention in a way that Obama was unable to do for himself.
    The snapshot of current relations between the two presidents came last week when Clinton dawdled at the foot of the stairs to Air Force One at the Tel Aviv airport after the funeral of former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
    Obama shouts to Bill Clinton at Air Force One: 'Let's go!'
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      Obama shouts to Bill Clinton at Air Force One: 'Let's go!'


    Obama shouts to Bill Clinton at Air Force One: 'Let's go!' 01:15
    "Bill, let's go!" Obama cried from the top of the steps, his face a picture of combined exasperation, affection and amusement.

    Role reversal

    The Clinton-Obama rapprochement has had real results in 2016. In fact, it sparked a role reversal, with Obama and his wife, Michelle, returning the favor to become the most prominent surrogates for Hillary Clinton's election. Obama's growing popularity -- a CNN/ORC poll released Thursday found his approval rating at 55%, the highest mark of his second term -- lends Hillary Clinton significant credibility in key Democratic blocs.
    While Bill Clinton may have been less prominent in the 2016 campaign, he has been as busy as ever, heading to places like Youngstown, Ohio, where Trump's populism threatens to eat into Democratic vote counts.
    Each event is a chance to enthuse and register Democrats and spreads the campaign to places the candidate herself cannot always reach.
    His gaffes might make headlines but his influence is not always in the news.
    Conason says that on the same day as the showdown with the protestor in Philadelphia made waves, Bill Clinton enjoyed a rapturous welcome in the city from influential African Methodist Episcopal bishops from across the nation.
    "His speech to them was full of scripture and exhortation and stories about his wife and really nothing about him. He had them on their feet. They all went home, they did what they needed to do for him," Conason said.
    Clinton is just as tireless on the campaign trial as he was when he first ran for the office almost a quarter century ago. His white mane may be thinning and the skin hangs more loosely around his neck, but he was in top form in Ohio Wednesday, characteristically waving his thin index finger and holding small crowds in thrall.
    His speeches are packed with folksy anecdotes about people he meets on the trail, along with issues like energy, college financing, economic policy and retraining. He connects each of these points to a plan his wife is proposing to enact should they call the White House home again.
    On Wednesday, Clinton complained that such nuts and bolts policy never gets an airing in the debates, in a barbed comment about a campaign in which his 1990s style conversational politics has sometimes seemed a throwback.
    "It doesn't do well on Twitter! No one is foaming at the mouth!" Clinton said. "I am joking. But I am not."