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The mixed blessing of Bill Clinton

In Bill Clinton's 1992 election victory, he talked of voters getting "two for the price of one," referring to his wife, Hillary, as a brainy political activist who would bring an added bonus to his presidency. By and large it worked, as her popularity soared, especially among Democratic women.

But 23 years later, with Hillary seeking the office on her own, nobody is trumpeting the two-for-one bargain. Much of the reason is that Ms. Clinton must be, and wants to be, seen as standing on her own.

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Part of it, though, is the mixed blessing that her husband has become, given his personal and political behavior in office and thereafter. In addition to the lingering bad odor of the Lewinsky scandal, his sometimes unhelpful meddling in his wife's failed 2008 presidential campaign, and now their monumental joint fund-raising for their charitable foundation, raises questions of ethics and greed.

It needs to be noted that when 2008 presidential nominee Barack Obama was weighing his choice of a running mate, he picked Joe Biden rather than Hillary Clinton because, according to campaign manager David Plouffe, Mr. Obama confided: "I think Bill may be too big a complication. If I picked her, my concern is that there would be more than two of us in the relationship."

Some questions already have been raised about what Bill's role would be in a Hillary Clinton administration. Asked recently whether he would like to live in the White House again, this time as first husband, he jokingly observed that he wanted to ... and hoped he'd be invited.

For all that, Bill Clinton remains popular as a former president, and few political observers challenge the notion that he would be a major plus on the 2016 campaign trail, barring a major goof. In 2000, Democratic nominee Al Gore chose to make little use of him, preferring to run as his own man, a decision that may well have cost Mr. Gore the presidency in that tightly contested election.

Despite Bill Clinton's undeniable charisma and political savvy, he can on occasion have a tin ear. Witness his recent defense of the multi-millions he makes for speechifying: "I gotta pay the bills." His family, which Ms. Clinton complained was "dead broke" on leaving the White House, is rolling in dough.

It would be naive for anyone to assume that, as president, Hillary Clinton would not draw on her husband's broad and intricate knowledge of running the vast federal bureaucracy and the nation's foreign policy.

Bill Clinton clearly poses no peril to his wife's nomination, which is shaping up as a coronation notwithstanding the longshot challenges of Bernie Sanders, a declared socialist sitting in the Senate as an Independent, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.

In the general election, however, her Republican opponent will have "two for the price of one" as targets, as the Grand Old Party holds both the Clintons in particular abhorrence.

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In any event, just in terms of adding spice to a presidential election that will shape the course of American domestic and foreign party at a critical crossroads, Bill Clinton bids fair to be in the thick of it as more than just another private citizen with one vote.

Other former presidents usually have quietly stood by, as Mr. Obama's predecessor George W. Bush has done. But at least one Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, having declared after his first term that he would not run for a second, changed his mind. He challenged his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, seeking a second term, thus clearing the way for election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson in 1912.

Bill Clinton, sent to the sidelines by the two-term limit imposed by the 22nd Amendment, has as his only return route to the White House the candidacy of his ambitious and battle-hardened wife. As political theater, it's almost enough for the rest of us in the audience to anticipate with glee from our front-row seats.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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