The Big Dog on the road

THE BIG DOG ON THE ROAD…. He’s the most popular political figure in America, and arguably the only national politician who would be welcome to campaign literally everywhere in the country.

And right now, he’s working as hard as he can to prevent a dreadful electoral mistake.

Bill Clinton is baffled. The former president’s friends say he is in disbelief that in the closing weeks of the midterm campaigns Democrats have failed to articulate a coherent message on the economy and, worse, have allowed themselves to become “human pinatas.”

So Clinton is deploying himself on a last-ditch, dawn-to-dusk sprint to rescue his beleaguered party. And as the only president in modern times who has balanced the federal budget, he is leveraging his credibility to become one of the most fierce defenders of President Obama’s economic policies.

“To hear the Republicans tell it, from the second President Obama took his hand off the Bible taking the oath of office, everything that happened after that was his fault,” Clinton said this week at a campaign rally for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “I’d like to see any of you get behind a locomotive going straight downhill at 200 miles an hour and stop it in 10 seconds.”

It’s a pretty fascinating piece about the former president’s campaign efforts, which are considerable. By Election Day, Clinton will have appeared in more than 100 events from coast to coast.

To say that the Big Dog is taking his campaign efforts seriously would be a dramatic understatement. On the only day off he’s taken over the past two weeks, Clinton sat with a legal pad, late into the night, writing up talking points that he wanted Terry McAuliffe to help distribute to candidates.

Clinton’s concerns strike me as pretty compelling. He thinks his party, for example, has been ineffective in fighting to defend its accomplishments, and I’m very much inclined to agree. The former president isn’t satisfied with Democrats’ messaging and communications strategies, and that strikes me as more than fair.

But there is a pertinent detail that the article largely overlooked. Bill Clinton is arguably the most naturally gifted politician most of us have ever seen, and long-time readers know that I make no secret of my fondness for him (I even interned in his White House in 1995). But for all of Clinton’s considerable talents, in his first midterm cycle, his party’s candidates ran away from him; he wasn’t welcome in districts nationwide; his fellow Democrats allowed themselves to become “human pinatas”; and his party lost both the House and Senate.

I mention this because there’s a subtext to articles like these: why can’t Barack Obama play this game as well as Bill Clinton? The answer is: there’s a problem with that question.

Josh Marshall had a good piece on this yesterday: “Being president is hard. Being president two years into your first term is hard. And being at the center of the polarizing political storm — as Obama is today and Clinton was 16 years ago — tends to wipe the political genius and midas touch and all the other good stuff right off of you. 10% unemployment doesn’t make you look that good either. This isn’t justifying any mistakes. But I’m surprised how short the memories are of many people who do this political analysis thing for a living.”