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Good Bill, Bad Hillary

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Hillary Clinton remains the favorite to be the Democratic presidential nominee at their August 2008 convention in Denver. However, while most Dems view her positively, she's unpopular with Independents and Republicans. This is called "the Hillary problem," but it's really "the Bill problem."

The other night my wife and I went out to dinner and had a conversation with a British couple at the next table. When talk turned to politics, the English woman ranted at length about Hillary Clinton: made it clear that she thought Hillary would make a terrible President. We weren't surprised; almost every time we have an extended conversation with Brits, we find that they have negative feelings about the junior Senator from New York.

Unfortunately for Senator Clinton, a lot of Americans don't care for her, either. The latest CBS News/New York Times Poll indicates that 42 percent of respondents have a "not favorable" opinion of Ms. Clinton, versus only 38 percent who have a "favorable" rating. Since Hillary announced her candidacy for President, her "unfavorable" percentage has consistently topped her "favorable" rating. This accounts for the perception that Hillary Clinton is a polarizing figure. It's the reason that many Democratic Party insiders are backing other candidates such as Barack Obama and John Edwards.

Despite her divisive reputation, it's widely acknowledged that Senator Clinton is very smart and has been extremely effective in the Senate. So, there's a huge discrepancy between public perception and her actual performance. Judging from our dinner conversation the other night - and similar chats we've had with Hillary bashers - the Senator's unfavorable ratings have little to do with her record of accomplishment over the last six years: it's emotional.

The strong negative feelings about Senator Clinton focus on her role as Bill's wife: they date back to the Clinton relationship during the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio. Those who dislike Hillary don't approve of the way she responded to Bill's priapic escapades. As a result, they don't trust her. Our dinner companion asserted that Hillary should have divorced Bill; her logic was if she couldn't control her husband, she wouldn't be able to control the country.

This faulty reasoning - Hillary was an imperfect wife and therefore would be a bad President - seems a particularly insidious form of sexism. It applies standards to Hilary that haven't been applied to our previous Presidents: we've had a number of White House occupants - John Kennedy, for one - who weren't "perfect" husbands. Nonetheless, there's a certain cultural logic in this thinking.

Because Bill and Hillary Clinton are very public figures, there's been a lot of media speculation about their relationship: rumors that Hillary is a lesbian and that she and Bill have a secret deal to go their separate ways sexually, but to support each other politically. But, of course, there's another, simpler explanation as to why they stay together: Hillary loves Bill and she's committed to the relationship despite his misadventures. Having met Bill and Hillary it's easy to imagine why she sticks with the former President: he's a charmer.

While it's possible to overstate the impact of the Clinton's relationship on Hillary's favorability ratings, there seem to be three separate things going on that affect public perception of the Senator: first, the Clinton's have brought this on by deciding that both of them will be politicians. It's a relatively unique situation: the only comparable, current American political couple is Bob and Elizabeth "Liddy" Dole. Laura Bush's favorability ratings far outshine those of her husband; but she's not a politician, rather a high-profile wife in what appears to be a strange traditional marriage.

However, Bill and Hillary don't have a traditional marriage. While Hillary has gone out of her way to emphasize her role as Chelsea's mother and Bill's wife, she fits the conservative stereotype of the liberated woman and that's a flashpoint for many Americans. As much as those of us on the left coast support the idea of the "modern" marriage - where both spouses work and share family responsibilities - the reality is that most Americans idealize the traditional marriage, where dad "brings home the bacon" and mom is a homemaker.

Nonetheless, the basic problem with Hillary Clinton's popularity is not her modern marriage but her spouse. Bill's favorability ratings consistently top those of his wife. It's easy to understand why: both Clintons are smart and gracious, but he has charisma. The former President has that ineffable quality that makes you believe he wants you to be his special friend. He's a charmer, while Hillary is not. As a result, many folks who adore Bill find Hillary cold by comparison. Behind this lurks the reality that a lot of Americans who are captivated by the former President are deeply troubled by his ethical imperfections. However, they have trouble holding him accountable; so they blame Hillary. Their adoration follows a peculiar sexist logic: they conclude that Bill is much too nice to be fully responsible for his peccadilloes; therefore, Hillary must have driven him to them. That's the formula that affects Ms. Clinton's poll ratings: good Bill, bad Hillary.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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