Democrats are looking to embrace the #MeToo moment and rally women to push back on President Donald Trump in the midterms—and they don’t want Bill Clinton anywhere near it.
In a year when the party is deploying all their other big guns and trying to appeal to precisely the kind of voters Clinton has consistently won over, an array of Democrats told POLITICO they’re keeping him on the bench. They don’t want to be seen anywhere near a man with a history of harassment allegations, as guilty as their party loyalty to him makes them feel about it.
“I think it’s pretty tough,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), vice chair of the House Progressive Caucus and one of the leading voices in Congress demanding changes in Washington’s approach to sexual harassment. His presence “just brings up a lot of issues that will be very tough for Democrats. And I think we all have to be clear about what the #MeToo movement was.”
After booting Sen. Al Franken precisely because they wanted to draw a clear contrast with Trump, Democrats across the party's ideological and geographical spectrum acknowledged the political trouble that any appearance with Clinton would cause.
“I value the assets of what the Clintons can bring. He did a lot for Georgia when he was president,” added Georgia Democratic Chair DuBose Porter, treading delicately. “He carried Georgia. The personal side that is now being highlighted, we’ll have to measure.”
Privately, many Democratic politicians and strategists are harsher and firmer: Don’t come to their states, and don’t say anything about their campaigns. They are still worried about saying it out loud, but they don’t want him now, or maybe ever. They know Republicans would react by calling them — with good reason — hypocrites.
And in this political environment, Clinton campaigning anywhere would amount to him campaigning everywhere, forcing Democrats around the country to answer what they think of colleagues appearing with him, and whether they would do so themselves.
It’s a huge change from eight years ago, when Clinton made over 100 appearances for Democrats during the 2010 midterms as the most in-demand presence on the campaign trail. In his reelection campaign two years later, former President Barack Obama anointed Clinton his “explainer-in-chief.”
Clinton’s likely absence on the stump this year comes amid major demand for high-profile surrogates this year — from Obama, who’s expected make select appearances, to Joe Biden and the full crop of 2020 prospects, who are likely to be all over the place in the thick of election season. Even Hillary Clinton will do some targeted campaigning.
All this reluctance about him would be a surprise to Clinton himself, who, according to a person familiar with his plans, has already received a number of preliminary requests from campaigns for advice and events. He’s had a few conversations with candidates, but hasn’t initiated the calls, the person said. Clinton, the source said, is for now focused on his foundation work that included a tour last week of hurricane damage in the Virgin Islands and Dominica, and getting ready for the spring rollout of a mystery novel he wrote with James Patterson.
Anyway, wouldn’t even start to evaluate political stops until much closer to the election, the person said.
“President Clinton has been diligently working on his book. He’s also been focused on the work of his foundation,” the Clinton source said. “So beyond a few requests for support and advice from a few candidates, he hasn’t spent much time on the midterms.”
“People call me all the time [to ask] if I can talk to him, put [their] requests in,” said James Carville, the former Clinton strategist who remains close with him.
Carville said he believes the former president will do some campaigning, but given Clinton’s age — 71 — and other factors, “it can’t be like it used to.”
But “there are people who want him, I promise you,” Carville said.
Several Democratic campaigns have already polled Clinton’s popularity in their races, weighing whether to take the risk of inviting him out. Others say they’d love to see him chip in, so long as he sticks to New York, at closed-door fundraisers for them where no photographs of them together are taken.
“People are crass about it and will look to see where his numbers are,” admitted one Democratic member of Congress who is in a tough race and is anxious about going public embracing or trashing Clinton. “He’s still Bill Clinton, and he’s still a draw to certain segments of the party.”
“Depending on the audience, there will definitely be people … [who] will be uncomfortable,” said Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.). But there will also “definitely be people who want to see him.”
A Gallup poll in December had Clinton’s national approval rating at 45 percent, down 5 points since the end of the 2016 campaign, and a 52 percent disapproval. Those were his lowest numbers recorded by Gallup since he left office in 2001.
A variety of congressional Democrats were visibly uncomfortable about discussing Clinton. When approached, some of them asked nervously whether he was actually considering campaigning in the midterms.
Democratic operatives ducked the question, while several close allies of Clinton declined interview requests on the topic.
In an interview earlier this year on the party’s strategy for the midterms, Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez — who has not been in touch with Clinton the way he has with Obama and other top Democrats — took a diplomatic approach.
“Bill Clinton’s a former president of the United States, and in his administration, we took an economy that was in the tank and built an economic engine that had been unparalleled. Did he make significant mistakes? Of course he did,” Perez said. “People will make judgments race by race about who are the best surrogates to come down and advocate.”