Bill Clinton: Is He the Democrats' Newt Gingrich?

Bill Clinton has been going off-message lately. In a way, he's like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich – a senior statesman who says what he thinks, perhaps without thinking through the implications for his 'team,' and gets in trouble.

Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton

Much has been made of former President Bill Clinton’s recent off-message comments about Mitt Romney, taxes, and the economy. In fact, an entire literature has sprung up around why Mr. Clinton appears, at times, to be acting as a double agent for Mr. Romney.

Perhaps, one theory goes, ex-President Clinton is trying to undermine President Obama's reelection prospects as a way to boost his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, as a possible presidential candidate in 2016.

Another is that he is trying to help Mr. Obama by nudging his campaign away from its criticism of Romney’s business record at Bain Capital, on the idea that that line of attack is counterproductive.

A third is that Mr. Clinton is trying to help himself, as a philanthropist with close ties to Wall Street and other wealthy donors, many of whom are put off by Obama’s populist rhetoric.

But here’s another theory: Clinton is, in some ways, the Democrats’ Newt Gingrich. Both the former president and former House speaker are passionate, smart, ideas-driven politicians with an undisciplined streak and a history of marital infidelity. Last year, Mr. Gingrich came out of retirement as an active politician to run for president, and, like Clinton, said some things that hurt his own team. Exhibit A: calling rising GOP star Paul Ryan’s budget plan “right-wing social engineering.”

Gingrich hadn’t run for office since 1998. Clinton’s last campaign was 1996 – although he was, of course, deeply involved in his wife’s presidential run in 2008. And, lest we forget, Clinton went off-key at times during his wife’s campaign, sayings things about Obama that opened him up to charges of racism, which he vehemently denied.

Aides to Clinton are promoting the argument that he’s just a bit off his game – still mentally sharp, but out of practice.

“He’s 65 years old,” a Clinton adviser told Politico, in explaining why Clinton said on CNBC Tuesday that the economy is in recession when, in fact, it is not.

Another point is that some of Clinton’s “rogue” comments may have been misinterpretations of what he was trying to say. When he said on CNBC that the Bush tax cuts should be extended into next year, the news media pounced, saying that he was contradicting Obama’s call to let them expire, at least on the wealthy.

"What I think we need to do is find some way to avoid the fiscal cliff, to avoid doing anything that would contract the economy now, and then deal with what's necessary in the long term debt-reduction plans as soon as they can, which presumably would be after the election," Clinton said.

Soon after the CNBC interview, a Clinton spokesman put out a clarification, saying the former president “does not believe the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans should be extended again.”

Last week, Clinton also raised eyebrows when he praised Romney’s business career as “sterling” and called his activities at Bain “good work.”

“There’s no question that in terms of getting up and going to the office and, you know, basically performing the essential functions of the office, a man who’s been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold,” Clinton said May 31 on CNN.

Obama’s central argument against Romney has been that his time at Bain and in the Massachusetts statehouse did not qualify him for the presidency.

During the Republican primaries, Gingrich also slammed Romney over his record at Bain, providing fodder for an Obama ad. Now, in the vein of Clinton-as-Gingrich, the Romney campaign has set up a Twitter account, @Bill_Clinton12, devoted to Clinton comments that work against Obama – going back to 2008.

Clinton, of course, isn’t a clone of Gingrich. Clinton served two terms as president during a period of peace and prosperity, and is still seen favorably by the public. Gingrich lasted only four years as speaker of the House, ultimately undone by a revolt among his own ranks. His public image took a major hit during his presidential campaign.

And, in the end, Clinton will remain a major surrogate for Obama, while Gingrich is a bit player in the general election. Part of Clinton’s appeal, analysts say, is that he speaks his mind and is able to articulate complex ideas in a way that’s understandable to the broad public.

“Clinton is still a big weapon for Obama and one he will certainly need in October,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.