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June 25, 2014 4:43 PM Hillary is no Bill. Neither was Bill.

By Seth Masket

Philip Klein notes some of Hillary Clinton’s recent fumbles over the issue of her own personal wealth and compares her, unfavorably, to her husband. Bill, after all, was quite deft at turning what could be a negative against him into a negative against his opponents. Perhaps, says Klein, Hillary is overrated as a politician.

Perhaps. It’s also possible that Bill isn’t as skilled as we like to think he is. Oh, don’t get me wrong — he’s got amazing political skills. But it’s not like his presidency was eight years of gumdrops and rainbows. He actually made a number of political fumbles, to which Hillary’s recent comments pale in comparison.

In 1995, for example, President Clinton, speaking at a high-dollar fundraiser in Houston, said the following:

Probably there are people in this room still mad at me at that budget because you think I raised your taxes too much. It might surprise you to know that I think I raised them too much, too.

This was an unforced error that managed to anger basically everyone: his Republican opponents who had campaigned extensively against his tax increase and his Democratic allies who had devoted a great deal of energy, and sacrificed many friends in the House and Senate, defending it.

This wasn’t an isolated event. As New York Times report Todd Purdum remarked,

The President seldom gets in more trouble than when he tries to explain himself too much to an audience he wants to win over, and the speech on Tuesday night seemed a classic example.

Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) added:

He keeps conceding these things. He doesn’t understand that he’s conceding the principles.

And let’s not forget the abandoned BTU tax, failed health care reform, an impeachment crisis largely of his own making, yadda yadda yadda. Why do we think back on Bill’s presidency with such reverence and awe for his mad skillz? Two main reasons. One is that he went out on a high note. His second term featured solid economic growth and record low unemployment levels, which contributed to his strong approval ratings. (Indeed, Clinton remains the only president in the history of mass public opinion polling to leave office with higher approval ratings than he entered with.)

The second reason is that Bill has been very effective in managing his post-presidential appearances. Basically, he gets to pick his venues. When you’re president (or a presidential candidate), you’re really expected to speak up about everything nearly every day. Anyone who does that will occasionally make mistakes, and people will notice. Former presidents speak much less often and get to pick exactly where and when they’ll do it and in front of whom.

I think Jonathan Bernstein is right that Hillary may not have quite the same political talents as her husband, but that she has other important skills. It is no small thing to become the presumed and uncontested presidential nominee of a party two years before its primaries begin. And people may dismiss her as riding on Bill’s coattails, but how many non-vice presidents have pulled this off before? The path from First Lady to Senator to near-presidential nominee to Secretary of State is not a well worn one.

It’s possible she just doesn’t have Bill’s knack for connecting with people. But a lot of times, neither did Bill.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.

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