There is, as almost everyone knows, an undeclared candidate in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. He receives more media attention than Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Dennis Kucinich combined. His presence is felt at every debate, though he never stands behind the podium. His popularity exceeds that of all of his rivals, but his name will not appear on any ballot. He is, without a doubt, more qualified for the presidency than any American now alive, yet he is ineligible to hold the office. His name, of course, is William Jefferson Clinton.
Bill Clinton would cast a shadow over the current election season even if his wife were not engaged in her own campaign for the White House. Unless you have adult grandchildren, he is probably the only successful Democratic president you have ever known. Without the redemption of his two terms of peace and prosperity, the Democrats' chances of ever again being trusted with the keys to the Oval Office might have died forty-four years ago yesterday on Elm Street in Dallas. Had Clinton failed, the 2008 election would likely hold interest only until the Republican nominee was determined.
Most Americans, and nearly all Democrats, want to re-re-elect Bill Clinton. His popularity, already high when he went into retirement, has only grown during the seven years of malign, incompetent administration that followed. Sandwiched between two Bush presidencies, one inadequate and the other disastrous, Clinton is credited not only with his own accomplishments, but with those of Bill Gates and Newt Gingrich as well.
As Democrats ponder the 2008 presidential field, they are, whether they realize it or not, looking for the next Bill Clinton. Many look no farther than the woman who has shared his career and—on most days—his bed for the past three decades. Indeed, her husband's presidency, and her own role in it, constitutes her primary claim on voters' attention. Without Bill's administration, Hillary Rodham is a one term U.S. Senator without executive credentials, no more prepared to lead the nation than John Edwards, and far less experienced than Dodd, Biden, or any of the GOP hopefuls. If George H.W. Bush ran as a kinder, gentler Ronald Reagan, Hillary Clinton is presenting herself as a tougher, less promiscuous version of her id-burdened spouse.
Hillary is running as the 1996 Bill Clinton, the incumbent, experienced, seasoned, prepared. Barack Obama, by contrast, is campaigning as the 1992 edition, the vigorous young man who explicitly rejected the past, asking only that we have the courage to change and the faith to believe that we could rise above the corruption and meanness of the Bush years. Don't stop thinking about tomorrow. He will not—indeed, cannot—say so, but Obama is styling himself the rightful heir to the Clinton legacy and particularly the promise and optimism that preceded the years of compromise and scandal, Monica Lewinsky and Mark Rich.
It is no accident, then, that these two candidates are leading the race for the Democratic nomination. This election is about the two Bill Clintons, the one who inspired and the one who governed with a flawed, technocratic brilliance. John Edwards, by contrast, is the pre-Clintonian candidate, the last remaining representative of the Walter Mondale wing of the party (I mean this as no insult; Mondale is a man of great decency and would have provided a worthy substitute for Ronald Reagan's bumbling, directionless second term). Voters like and admire Edwards, but they want to vote for Bill, and they see little that is Clintonesque in the former senator's class-based appeal.
For their part, the Republican candidates are similarly hitching their own prospects to the memory of the only successful GOP presidency of the past half-century, that of Ronald Reagan. It will make for a strange, but fascinating election. I am reminded of those baseball board games (now computerized, of course) that allow you to pit the 1927 Yankees against the 1976 Reds to see which is the greatest team of all time. The 2008 election will, by proxy, finally allow Reagan and Clinton to square off for all the marbles.
This is, to be sure, a bit of an exaggeration; 9/11 and W have intervened significantly since 2001. Still, this is as close as we are likely to get to a final decision, by voters who still remember, as to which legacy will reign supreme. And then, perhaps, we can finally, truly move on.