Bill in a China Shop

What’s up with Bill Clinton? Has he lost his touch or is he playing a more devious game?

Former US President Bill Clinton speaks during a campaign event for US President Barack Obama in New York on June 4, 2012.

Bill Clinton has had to backtrack on recent statements perceived as unhelpful to Obama’s campaign

Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GettyImages.

Bill Clinton is the great St. Bernard of politics, bounding around the political landscape, rescuing and providing aid while simultaneously knocking over the table lamp. At the moment, he is hosting the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, which this year is taking a serious look at America’s economic problems. He is also in the thick of the 2012 campaign, raising money for President Obama. The trouble is no one is better at articulating the case for Obama’s re-election—while at the same time occasionally undercutting Obama’s chances. 

Recently he has been on the wrong end of at least three different statements he has had to clarify—defending Bain Capital, testifying to Mitt Romney’s “sterling” business career, suggesting the country was still in a recession, and suggesting he favored extending the Bush-era tax cuts. Clinton is doing such good work for Mitt Romney that he now appears in the Republican nominee’s press releases. Even Sarah Palin praised Clinton last night, in an effort to make President Obama look way out of the mainstream.

What is up with Bill Clinton? Everyone has a theory, which is part of the problem with Bill Clinton. He compels theories from people about his hidden machinations, even when there aren’t any. 

So, let’s consider a series of theories based on a round of conversations with Clinton watchers, former staffers, and allies: 

A storyteller in a Twitter world. Bill Clinton is at his best when he is telling a tale or reasoning something out with you. “I could give a pretty good one,” he once said to an Ames, Iowa audience about loping political speeches, “’cause I came out of a tradition of storytellers where we listened and learned how to tell stories.” That doesn’t really fit in the 140 character world of Twitter. The news cycle has sped up even faster since he was president. So has the phony outrage and games of gotcha. His talent for framing what the election is about is less valued and gets less play than the moments when he is off message. 

He’s actually not off message. If you look at Clinton’s so-called gaffes, they’re not off message in any reasonable sense. When he said that Romney had a “sterling” business career, it was right up against a sentence that said he would not be a good president. When he said the Bush-era tax cuts should be “extended,” he was talking about a temporary extension to work out a deal with Republicans. Twice in the interview he said he did not support a permanent extension. The comment about the recession was simply an act of misspeaking.

He has forgotten how to talk like a politician (because he doesn’t have to). Bill Clinton speaks in paragraphs. He spends a lot of his time in long conversations with interesting people talking about global issues. That can deaden your political communications skills which—when sharp—allow you say nothing interesting about even the smallest issues. In order to navigate a world in which your every word is spliced, you must say nothing that can be taken out of context, which is to say, very little at all. The former leader of the free world isn’t going to simply read talking points cooked up by the Obama campaign in Chicago, anyway. One strong dissenting voice among my interviews argued that while Clinton did have trouble adapting to the new world during the 2008 campaign, he’s long since adapted.

He thinks he is the smartest one in the room. Clinton thinks that the Bain attacks on Romney are inefficient and not smart. They also risk hurting major Democratic Party donors. In that CNN interview last week, he also clearly was sending a bigger message about how he thinks this election should be fought: on ideas about the future. That was a memo to the Obama team. It may have been an act of ego, but it was an act of ego to help Obama. This contradicts the theory of those who think that Clinton has been trying to undermine Obama for one reason or another.

Occam’s bushy beard. Occam’s Razor says that the simplest answer is usually the right one. But in the political world people often believe the opposite is true. Practitioners and pundits (at the dinner table and in the green room) often search for the most baroque explanations to explain utterly common things. In medicine, this is known as Hickam’s Dictum. So, when Clinton is simply running his mouth, it is interpreted to be subtle positioning to set up his wife’s presidential run, or an attempt to undermine Obama’s legacy so that Obama won’t get elected to a second term and diminish the record of the last two-term Democratic president. 

He loves politics. As Taylor Branch wrote in The Clinton Tapes, “[Clinton] never begrudged survival and ambition in politicians, whether friend or foe. Indeed, he reveled in calculations from opposing points of view.” For someone who loves politics this much, Clinton doesn’t mind playing a few angles, for whatever purpose, so it’s understandable to think every deviation he makes must be a clever stratagem. But when he’s making a tactical move, says one who knows him, it’s a little more obvious. He works his way to his point in a methodical way. That’s not what people have seen in his supposed gaffes.

He is angling for his wife. Bill Clinton was his wife’s chief surrogate in 2008. He says the decision is up to her, but everyone assumes that he really wants her to make another run for president. So could he be sabotaging Obama to help his wife? That would require enough subtlety not to get caught, but would still need to be bracing enough to do Obama some damage. Even Clinton can’t pull that off. But it’s true, say those who know him, that Clinton is loyal to those who have helped him and his wife. That would explain his defense of Bain and it would also explain his warm comments about Donald Trump.

No single theory explains Clinton. He contains multitudes. Which portion of which theory makes up the complete picture requires you to come up with your own alchemy. As for the Obama campaign, which must handle these little eruptions now and again, the best thing to do is to prepare for the occasional breakage of a family heirloom, because they’re never really going to be able to control the St. Bernard.