DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – His popularity among Democrats is off the charts, he’s a fundraising powerhouse and his administration is hailed by many as a high-water mark of economic prosperity. Without question, one of the key assets in Hillary Clinton’s second campaign for the White House is her husband, Bill.
And yet, there are still times when the former president can step in it.
The latest headache came this past week, when Bill Clinton crossed paths at the Phoenix airport with Attorney General Loretta Lynch. He popped inside her plane for a private chat, ignoring the fact that Lynch’s Justice Department is in the midst of an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account and server during her time as secretary of state.
While Lynch said their conversation was social and her department’s probe of Clinton wasn’t discussed, she nevertheless acknowledged Friday it “cast a shadow” on the public’s perception of the case. “I certainly wouldn’t do it again,” Lynch said of the meeting.
Bill Clinton’s impromptu visit with Lynch followed other moments Clinton’s campaign would surely likely to have back, including his scolding of Black Lives Matter protesters at a Philadelphia campaign event in April. But despite the potential for such slip-ups, many supporters argue the benefits of Bill Clinton greatly outweigh the risks.
“He’s not the most effective surrogate on the Democratic side, he’s not the most effective surrogate in 2016: he’s probably the most effective surrogate ever,” said Matt McKenna, a former spokesman for the former president. “He is a remarkably effective fundraiser. He is a remarkably effective strategist. He is an incredible counselor not just to the campaign, but to her.”
Heading into the general election, the Clintons continue to navigate the unique terrain of an ex-president campaigning for his wife. Bill Clinton stayed out of sight during the early months of his wife’s campaign as she reacquainted herself with voters. But he started getting more involved in the fall and has been a vigorous presence ever since, doing more than 400 public events since January in 40 states and territories.
“She’s got the best ideas, she’s got the best record of doing it and she’s the best changemaker I’ve ever known,” Clinton told a cheering crowd of more than 350 gathered in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in May.
Bill Clinton has largely appeared in smaller cities, enhancing the reach of the campaign, and has taken an active role in fundraising.
“I had him in my home a few months ago, and people love him. When he’s with them he’s so good,” said John Morgan, an Orlando attorney and longtime Clinton fundraiser. He added: “The guy fills rooms. He fills a room. For raising money, Number One, he does that.”
During the long Democratic primary, Bill Clinton, who is ferociously protective of his wife, grew increasingly frustrated with her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, and his supporters. But he has largely created less drama than in 2008, when he drew scrutiny for a number of statements, including equating then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s wins in the South Carolina Democratic primary with Jesse Jackson’s victories in the state in 1984 and 1988.
The Lynch meeting is another such distraction. Clinton’s campaign declined to comment on the meeting, as did a spokesman for Bill Clinton. David Axelrod, Obama’s top campaign strategist, said on Twitter it was “foolish to create such optics,” even though he trusts the two did not discuss the investigation.
Presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has no such faith.
“Bill’s meeting was probably initiated and demanded by Hillary,” Trump wrote on Twitter, without offering any evidence. “Does anybody really believe that meeting was just a coincidence?” he asked.
Morgan dismissed that criticism outright, arguing the real surprise would have been if Bill Clinton noticed Lynch was nearby and didn’t stop to say hello.
“If in the plane next to his was me, he would come over and come up, because that is what he does,” Morgan said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Loretta Lynch or Loretta Lynn. He’s coming over if he knows you.”
Still, it’s likely that questions of how best to deploy Bill Clinton as “first dude” will remain a source of occasional consternation. When Hillary Clinton suggested recently she would place her husband in charge of revitalizing the economy, aides later had to stress there were no formal plans in place to do so.
Friends, however, argue they need not worry.
“Nobody better understands than Bill Clinton the need to be Number Two in support of the future president and not to relive his days as Number One,” said Lanny Davis, a White House special counsel during the Clinton administration who attended law school with Bill and Hillary Clinton. “There’s only going to be one presidential candidate.”