Just ahead of the Pennsylvania primary on April 26th, I watched like a freeway rubbernecker as former President Bill Clinton challenged and debated Black Lives Matter activists about the 1994 crime bill and its impact on black communities. The protesters chanted that “black youth are not super-predators.” This phrase is clearly connected to Hillary Clinton’s statements in support of her husband’s bill, an issue that has dogged her on the campaign. Two months earlier in response to a similar protest before the South Carolina primary, Hillary Clinton attempted to quash critics by saying, “Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.” Instead of parroting his wife’s earlier mea culpa, Bill Clinton engaged protesters in a fifteen minute debate where he vehemently defended the need for the crime bill and challenged protesters’ perspectives by saying, “You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter.” This interaction was surprising for two reasons. First, Bill Clinton said a year ago that he regretted signing the crime bill because of its role in the mass incarceration of black and brown people. Thus, it seemed he was going back on that statement. More importantly for the 2016 election, he threatened to undo much of the work that his wife has done to shore up support among blacks and secure their votes right before major northeastern primaries.
Like all disaster scenes, I was horrified but could not look away. Despite her own efforts at independent credential building over the last several decades, Hillary Clinton has struggled to move beyond her husband’s presidential legacy, and particularly his racial legacy. At the Philadelphia rally, Bill Clinton attempted to tether his wife to his own problematic legacy and, in my opinion, sink her with the weight of it. I am not suggesting that Hillary Clinton has completely redeemed or successfully separated herself from the super-predator comment in service to a piece of legislation that accelerated mass incarceration levels for black and brown people. (It took her too long to offer the apology for semantics and not actually for the sentiment, when the sentiment is what is so offensive.) I am arguing he should never be in the position of sinking his wife’s aspirations, if he is a good political spouse.
Watching the whole thing brought up the need for us to think seriously about male political spouses, the prospect of the first First Gentlemen (@FGOTUS, maybe), and about this potential First Gent in particular. Besides being completely unhelpful to his wife’s efforts to solidify support from a constituency group she cannot afford to lose, what he did that day was completely antithetical to our understanding of the job of political spouses. Because political spouses have mostly been women (all women at the presidential level) we have a gendered model that is rooted in heteronormative views of what wives should be and do. Our understanding of how marriage and politics work together publicly is developed from the perspective of man being the central character and a woman playing a supporting role. First Ladies and other political wives are expected to subordinate their own views, careers and any ambitions that are not in service to her husband’s electoral success. Men are rarely asked to do any of these things in marriage, including political ones. Asking a former leader of the free world to be a supporting character in any context is difficult, but in campaigns everyone should know their role. In this moment, Bill Clinton demonstrated that he either did not know his role or did not care.
Interestingly some people have suggested that Bill Clinton’s reaction was an effort to defend his wife. It has been suggested that he gets so emotional when people attack his wife that he loses his composure –an argument that is truly surprising, given the way he kept his cool during his own shenanigans in the White House. The best argument against this perspective is actually watching the whole exchange. Though he references his wife and her positions briefly, the bulk of his rant is about his accomplishments. His evidence for the bill he supposedly disavowed does more to reinforce the problematic super-predator argument than help his wife mobilize supporters who are offended by it. Without calling them super-predators or wilding youths running amok in urban jungles, he clearly alludes to them as the “thirteen year old kids planning their own funerals in DC” and “gang leaders who got thirteen-year-olds hopped up on crack to send them out into the streets to murder other African Americans.” As I watched I found myself saying three things out loud to my own TV. First, damn, thirteen-year-olds have a hard life. Second, dude, you are talking about super-predators right now. Third and most importantly, for your wife’s sake, stop talking immediately. He apparently did not hear me.
How would the exchange with the protesters have looked if Bill had done his job as a political spouse rather than trying to win an argument about race, crime, and his political legacy, which he has already lost among most blacks? What would have happened if he had subverted his own views and merely restated his wife’s assertion that she regrets using the statement? That simple phrasing wouldn’t have required him to say that either of them regretted the bill or anything else about it. He simply had to do what political spouses—political wives, rather—have done forever. He needed to say that his wife is not him and that her views are the ones that should matter. He needed to say that his wife has expressed her regret about this and she is the one that people will be voting for on Election Day. He needed to say things that would get his wife elected and not make listeners believe that Hillary Clinton’s previous expressions of regret were just another example of the Clinton’s willingness to do or say anything in the name of political expediency.
Other first spouses have disagreed with their husbands on significant policy issues, retracted controversial statements, and smiled with painfully clenched teeth in service to their partners’ political ambitions. Barbara Bush disagreed with her husband on abortion rights and refrained from speaking about it until 1992. By that time, her husband had served two terms as Vice President and one as President. In 2008, Michelle Obama told a Wisconsin audience, “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country. Not just because Barack is doing well, but I think people are hungry for change.” She was lambasted by the right for being unpatriotic and had to repeatedly clarify that she was talking about her pride in the significant grassroots political support her husband was receiving. Alicia Florrick is going through yet another trial with Peter. Oh, wait, those are fictional television characters but still applicable here. I want to be clear that I am recounting these events, not lauding them. These women are not former presidents, but are they all intellectual and political forces in their own right, and the fact that they could not speak clearly about their own opinions and were essentially treated as appendages to their husbands galls me. Bill Clinton’s unwillingness to do the same for his wife is equally galling to me.
During the coverage of the Indiana primary on May 3, CNN contributor and former Obama advisor David Axelrod, said, “Bill Clinton is the greatest surrogate any Democratic candidate can have other than his wife.” This is unfortunate because his absence from the campaign trail will always be a curiosity for reporters; however, it’s unclear if it is more damaging than his unpredictable presence. We have known for decades that Bill Clinton is a terrible husband, but we believed him to be a gifted campaigner and political strategist. What should concern Hillary Clinton, her campaign staff and supporters is that he is a significant liability as a political spouse. That when pushed into a corner, which Donald Trump will do over and over, he will continue to be what he has always been—an eloquent defender of his own legacy and a terrible husband, political or otherwise.
Melanye Price is assistant professor of Africana Studies and Political Science at Rutgers University—New Brunswick. Her research/teaching interests include black politics, public opinion, and social movements. Dr. Price completed her B.A. magna cum laude in geography at Prairie View A&M University and her MA and PhD in political science at The Ohio State University. Her second book, The Race Whisperer: Barack Obama and the Political Uses of Race (NYU) that examines the multiple and strategic ways that President Obama uses race to deflect negative racial attitudes and engage with a large cross-section of voters will be published in June. Her first book, Dreaming Blackness: Black Nationalism and African American Public Opinion (NYU) examined contemporary support for Black Nationalism. Professor Price previously taught at Wesleyan University and was an inaugural professor for Wesleyan’s College in Prison Program at Cheshire Correctional Facility, a maximum security men’s prison. She has also done political commentary for The New York Times, Hartford Courant, CT Public Radio, and the Middletown Press.