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Is Bill Clinton Helping Or Hurting His Wife's Campaign?

Former President Bill Clinton speaks at a campaign event for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at a college campus in Nevada.
Ethan Miller
Getty Images
Former President Bill Clinton speaks at a campaign event for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at a college campus in Nevada.

Bill Clinton was at a rally in Michigan riffing about the American health care system, riffing being a favorite pastime of the former president. He was getting to a point about how his wife, Hillary Clinton, hopes to improve the Affordable Care Act.

But before he could get there, he described "this crazy system" where under Obamacare millions more people have health coverage but some have seen "their premiums doubled and their coverage cut in half."

Clinton topped it off with a line that rapidly created headline headaches for his wife's campaign.

"It's the craziest thing in the world," Bill Clinton said.

Less than 24 hours later at the vice presidential debate, Donald Trump's running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, had turned it into a line of attack.

"Even former President Bill Clinton calls Obamacare a 'crazy plan,' but Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine want to build on Obamacare," Pence said. "They want to expand it into a single-payer program and for all the world; Hillary Clinton just thinks Obamacare is a good start."

Trump and Pence want to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act.

It's not that Bill Clinton got the policy wrong. It's simply that in a presidential campaign, there's a danger in being too blunt.

At various points in this campaign, the question has arisen: Is Bill Clinton helping more than he's hurting?

There was the time in April he got into an extended and heated exchange with a Black Lives Matter protester, defending the 1994 crime bill he signed into law. At the time it was a big issue in the Democratic primary and something Hillary Clinton's campaign would have preferred to downplay rather than defend, since she was first lady at the time and not in elected office.

Later, Clinton said he almost wanted to apologize for the exchange, but instead hoped it would become a teachable moment.

"I rather vigorously defended my wife, as I am wont to do," he said. "And I realized finally, I was talking past her the way she was talking past me. We gotta stop that in this country."

And then there was the time Bill Clinton boarded Attorney General Loretta Lynch'sairplane to chat about the grandkids (that's what Lynch said, as it blew up into a massive controversy) in the midst of the FBI's investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private server while secretary of state.

Talk about headaches for the campaign — and the attorney general for that matter.

But Bill Clinton also has the ability to draw a crowd and is in the midst of a campaign bus tour across Ohio, encouraging people to register to vote and to vote early. His speech at the Democratic convention was well received, as he described his wife's passion for service dating back to the time they met in law school.

Clearly the Clinton campaign has determined that the rewards of having the former president out on the campaign trail outweigh the risks. Or perhaps the campaign doesn't have a choice. When he ran for president in 1992, Bill Clinton described the couple as two for the price of one. Now as his wife runs, he remains quite involved.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.