Five Democrats Bill Clinton Couldn’t Save

Al Gore, Hillary, Terry McAuliffe, Martha Coakley, Tom Barrett—and Obama may be next

Bill Clinton / AP
September 5, 2012

Bill Clinton’s address tonight is one of the most highly anticipated speeches of the Democratic National Convention. Clinton’s expected endorsement of an Obama second term will come on the heels of his appearance in the Obama for America ad "Clear Choice," in which the 42nd president says President Obama’s economic agenda of tax hikes and government spending will create an economy similar to the one America enjoyed "when I was president." The advertisement appears regularly on cable news and broadcast channels in key swing states in what seems to be an effort to recapture voters who may have voted for Obama in 2008 but are considering throwing their support to Mitt Romney in 2012.

President Obama, however, is not the first Democrat for whom President Clinton has served as a surrogate. Since his election to the presidency 20 years ago, and especially since he retired from office in the midst of scandal 11 years ago, Clinton has a record of being an unreliable and ineffective campaign surrogate.

Here are five Democrats Bill Clinton was unable to save. Will Barack Obama be the next?

1. Al Gore

Al Gore / AP

Despite leaving office with a 66 percent approval rating, Clinton was unable to hand over the White House to his chosen successor, Vice President Al Gore. While Gore won the popular vote in the 2000 election, his narrow loss of Florida was enough to give George W. Bush an edge in the Electoral College.

Conservative political analysts Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon attributed the strange dynamic of the 2000 election to the American peoples’ "bifurcated view of the Clinton presidency." They wrote 12 years ago:

After the Senate acquitted Bill Clinton, it was reasonable to expect that the president's job approval and personal approval would reconverge. It also seemed likely that his popularity would come to rest at a fairly high level, given the persistence of the encouraging national trends—low unemployment, high stock prices, budget surpluses, and sharply declining rates of welfare dependency and violent crime—that had given Clinton his high job approval in the first place.

But the expected reconvergence of Clinton's ratings hasn't happened—with direct consequences for his designated heir. Vice President Al Gore led all comers in presidential polls throughout 1997, but abruptly lost his lead at the beginning of the Lewinsky scandal, and has never regained it.

The Clinton bifurcation is one reason Al Gore greeted his wife at the 2000 DNC with a sloppy and somewhat embarrassing kiss.

The Gores are now divorced.

2. Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton / Wikimedia Commons

Clinton’s surrogate skills were put to the test when his wife, then-New York Senator Hillary Clinton, ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.

However, Clinton routinely lashed out against his wife’s opponent, then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama, in a series of comments that distracted from Hillary Clinton’s message. He called Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war a "fairy tale." He downplayed the South Carolina Democratic primary. He repeated his wife’s story of landing in Bosnia under "sniper fire."

The outbursts were not enough to win Hillary Clinton the nomination, however. She dropped out of the race for president in June 2008.

The Clintons remain legally married.

3. Terry McAuliffe

Terry McAuliffe / AP

When best friend and former DNC chair Terry McAuliffe pursued the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Virginia in 2009, Clinton stood by his side. McAuliffe "was born to lead at this moment," Clinton told a rally in northern Virginia in May of that year.

Virginia Democrats disagreed, handing Creigh Deeds a blowout victory in June 2009. Deeds went on to lose in a similar blowout to Republican Bob McDonnell.

4. Martha Coakley

Martha Coakley / Wikimedia Commons

The Massachusetts attorney general ran against then-state senator Scott Brown to fill the seat once held by the late U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Clinton was among the prominent Democrats to rally behind Coakley in January 2010 when polls showed the race closing.

Brown, who emphasized his opposition to President Obama’s health care overhaul, defeated Coakley 52 percent to 47 percent in the reliably liberal state known throughout the country as "Taxachusetts."

5. Tom Barrett

Tom Barrett / Wikimedia Commons

The most prominent election this year to date occurred in June in Wisconsin, where Democrats and their union allies attempted to recall Republican governor Scott Walker. President Clinton stumped for Walker’s challenger, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, in a high-profile appearance days before the election.

He fell flat. Walker defeated Barrett, 53 percent to 46 percent, and the Milwaukee mayor joined the ranks of the Democrats Bill Clinton’s charm was unable to save.