It's hard to know whether presumed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama was thrilled or shuddered when former President Bill Clinton told reporters he'd campaign for him "whenever he asks." During his heated primary battles with Hillary Clinton, Obama spent almost as much time jawing at Bill as he did at Hillary. The difference was the sharp words between the two had a hard, hostile edge to it that went beyond the typical political sparring that candidates engage in during hard campaigns. The ill-will didn't totally end with Hillary's defeat, nor even after Bill and Obama met in Washington. Bill's subsequent perfunctory endorsement of Obama didn't have much ring or conviction to it.
But Obama should ignore the tepid endorsement. He should also ignore the poll numbers that show Clinton's popularity is down with Democrats, and that he is damaged goods with party regulars and the media. Clinton is still hugely popular with a wide segment of the voters who Obama needs to win the White House. They are white male, centrist to conservative independents. They make up a substantial number of voters in the South and the Heartland states.
If Obama can snatch one, but better two, of those states from the GOP's hip pocket this will give him a real shot at the White House win. In presidential elections stretching back four decades, the South and the Heartland states have guaranteed Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr. the decisive margin of victory over their Democrat opponents. Without their solid backing in 2000, Democratic Presidential contender Al Gore would have easily won the White House, and the Florida vote debacle would have been a meaningless sideshow. This election is no different. Polls show that Republican rival John McCain runs strong among white male independents and could make inroads among disgruntled Hillary Democrats in these states. Bill could be Obama's trump card to make sure that doesn't happen.
But it's with the white South where he could be especially valuable. In the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns, Clinton grabbed two Deep South States and four upper South states back from the Republicans. Though blacks voted overwhelmingly for him, white votes put him over the top in the Southern states he won. If Clinton can help deliver his home state of Arkansas, and possibly Louisiana where Democrats have run well, he could break the Republican's vise-like grip on the South.
Clinton didn't crack the iron clad Republican grip on the white South by charging the barricades on civil rights. He stole a big page from the Republican Southern Strategy playbook and talked strong defense, promised more police, and pushed the economic resuscitation of mid-America. This non-racial, centrist pitch did not threaten or alienate the white middle-class, and blunted the standard Republican rap that Democrats pander to special interests, i.e. minorities.
Though Obama has kept his distance from Bill, he hasn't distanced himself from his winning strategy. He has tried to outflank McCain on the GOP and Clinton's signature issues of military preparedness, national security, and toughness on terrorism. He has been virtually mute on issues such as criminal justice system reform, failing inner-city public schools, racial profiling, affirmative action, and the HIV/AIDS plague.
Bill gave Hillary a huge boost in her winning efforts in the Border States and even in her losing effort in North Carolina. He barnstormed through mostly white rural, small towns, and farm countryside touting Hillary. The crowds were big everywhere he went. His star power hadn't diminished one bit with these voters. These are also the voters who in exit polls expressed hostility to Obama. A significant number flatly said that that they wouldn't vote for him. Bill wouldn't instantly change their minds. But a strong appeal from him to them on behalf of Obama might soften the hostility -- at least in some. In a tight race in those states, that would be a big plus for Obama.
It could also make a difference with wary Hillary Democrats. Despite Obama's much touted unity rally with Hillary in June, many of her impassioned backers still give him the cold shoulder. A CNN poll after their unity event found that more of them still said they wouldn't support him. A vigorous push by Bill for Obama might change some of their minds about him too.
Democratic presidential contenders Al Gore and John Kerry did not ask or encourage Clinton to help them in their campaigns. If either one had carried just one or two of the Southern states or Border States that Clinton won, say West Virginia and Georgia, they would have won the White House. They didn't, and ignoring Bill as it turned out was a politically dumb move. The lesson from recent Democratic presidential failures is that you don't turn down a helping hand from Bill.
Obama shouldn't either. He should not ask but implore Bill to campaign for him.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How the GOP Can Keep the White House, How the Democrats Can Take it Back (Middle Passage Press, August 2008).
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