FOR EIGHT YEARS, it has been a popular myth in many quarters that if it hadn't been for the 22nd Amendment, Bill Clinton wouldn't have had to leave the White House in January of 2001. "If the Constitution had not barred him from running again," The New York Times remarked in a Page 1 story three weeks before Clinton's second term ended, "polls suggest he might well be preparing for a third term." That myth became the basis of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, and of the widely-held conviction that her nomination was an inevitability.
And if Hillary was running for Bill's third term -- well, then naturally it made sense to get Bill out on the campaign trail, to remind Democrats how much they had loved those first two Clinton terms. "I know some people say, 'Look at them -- they're old, they're sort of yesterday's news'" the former president was telling voters last summer. "Well," he'd add happily, "yesterday's news was pretty good."
But the myth, being a myth, was never true. Polls in 1999 and 2000 repeatedly found that large majorities of the public did not wish Clinton could run for a third term. And Bill's return to the hustings last year didn't exactly fill Democrats with ecstatic expectations of a Clinton restoration. At times it has seemed as if the more voters saw of the once and would-be future First Couple, the less they wanted to see. "About thirty minutes into Bill Clinton's nearly two-hour stop here at Dartmouth College," the Washington Post reported from Hanover, N.H., on Monday, "a steady stream of students started walking out of the venue." Meanwhile, overflow crowds were rocking the rafters at Barack Obama rallies.
That old Clinton magic seems more old than magical now. While the graceful and eloquent Obama electrifies voters and inspires hopeful thoughts of a sunny future, Hillary has tended to come across as chilly and contrived. Her tears the other day -- so unexpected and obviously genuine -- may have done more to awaken sympathy for her than anything else voters have seen from the Clinton campaign in a long time. Indeed, they may have won New Hampshire for her.
Running for Bill Clinton's third term has gotten Hillary Clinton nowhere. She will not win the nomination with an air of entitlement or as the embodiment of "yesterday's news." She ought to run as herself, instead. Hillary may not have Obama's boundless charm or her husband's political instincts, but she does have a heart and soul. They may yet prove her strongest weapon.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)