Indulge me a political hypothetical, if you please.
Suppose that sometime in the next six months—that is, before the 2016 election officially begins—Bill Clinton is abducted by aliens and is never seen or heard from again.
How would this eventuality affect the fortunes of his wife, Hillary?
The reason I ask is because since at least as early as 1992—or 1978, if you include the governorship of Arkansas—the Clinton family has always been a “two for the price of one” proposition whenever either spouse has run for office. If you voted for one, you would be dealing with both. Bill Clinton explicitly made this two-for-one offer during his first run for president, and it has remained implicit, for better and for worse, ever since.
Originally, of course, the formulation was meant to be taken in a positive light: In 1992, not only would the voters be getting a former governor and Rhodes Scholar for president, but also an accomplished lawyer, educated at Wellesley and Yale, for first lady. What could be better?
Today, after more than two decades of the Clintons being continuously in the forefront of American politics, many folks—including some supporters—have grown weary of this tag-team dynamic, and would much rather be presented with only one Clinton at a time. (In a recent book about the 2012 campaign, President Barack Obama was quoted as saying about Bill, “I like him…in doses.”)
As Hillary Clinton (supposedly) prepares to enter the 2016 presidential race, questions about Bill will become as unavoidable as they were in 2008. Not merely questions about Bill’s role in Hillary’s campaign—“will he help or hurt?”—but also about Bill’s role in Hillary’s White House. He would, after all, be the first ex-president in history to be granted unfettered access to the executive mansion after his own tenure had expired. We are thereby entitled to wonder how he might elect to spend his valuable time.
No doubt some suspect that a President Hillary would appoint a First Gentleman Bill as a cabinet secretary or some sort of ambassador. Happily (or sadly, depending on your perspective), such a flagrant act of nepotism will never occur, because the U.S. Code expressly forbids it. As stipulated in Title 5, Part III, Subpart B, Chapter 31, Subchapter I, Section 3110, “A public official may not appoint […] to a civilian position in the agency in which he is serving […] any individual who is a relative of the public official.” The Clintons are renowned for their ability to twist legal language to within an inch of its life, but that sentence sounds pretty clear-cut to me.
Even so, there are plenty of non-official uses for a man who spent eight years as commander-in-chief, who seems to know everyone in Washington (and the rest of the world) and who relishes the art of politics for its own sake.
Weighing the twin facts of Bill Clinton’s perpetual restlessness and the general trend in recent decades of presidential spouses assuming an active role in public life—from Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign onward—we have every reason to assume that in electing Hillary, we would also, in a roundabout way, be reelecting Bill.
But what if there were no Bill? What if Hillary Clinton in 2016 were to be considered purely on her own merits, without us factoring in the presence of her husband? Would voters give her a newfound benefit of the doubt, or would their reservations only expand? Is it too much to hope that it wouldn’t make any difference at all?
Following Hillary’s dozen combined years as a U.S. senator and secretary of state, no sane person can contest her ability to carry a government job on her own. (Not that anyone has.) To an extent, her two most recent posts have proved the unfairness in assuming that the only way the Clintons succeed is when one is shadowing the other. (Debate still rages about which spouse is the true political prodigy.)
But the fact remains that neither of them has been given the chance to be judged independently of the other. Possibly they never will, and perhaps that’s just the way they like it.
Nonetheless—and while I would never wish any misfortune, extraterrestrial or otherwise, to befall our beloved Bill—it is worth reflecting on the degree to which our views about one Clinton are influenced by those about the other. And whether, in a country that was forged in opposition to hereditary leaders, “two for the price of one” was ever really a bargain at all.