What happens when the Clintons’ sparkle fades?

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File

WASHINGTON — There was a time not that long ago when the Clinton name sparkled in Democratic circles. But the shine isn’t quite so bright these days, even as the Democrats’ biggest power couple tries to stay on the stage.

Key players in the Democratic Party are testing out ways to move past the Clinton brand, a delicate and tricky task. And it’s one occurring while Hillary Clinton tours the country to promote her book about the 2016 election, including a stop in Boston on Nov. 28.

The tensions have escalated amid the nation’s ever-deeper reckoning with the kind of aggressive sexual misconduct allegations that are not unfamiliar to the Arkansas duo, their fans, and their enemies. Questions have also arisen recently about Hillary Clinton’s closeness with the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 Democratic primary.


Recent Democratic boldfaced names who have been throwing shade at Hillary or Bill Clinton, or both, include Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Donna Brazile, Mika Brzezinski, and Kathleen Sebelius. That’s two top 2020 contenders, one of the party’s most well-known strategists, a leading liberal voice in the media, and a former Obama administration Cabinet member.

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There’s no evidence that the criticism has been coordinated, but instead it underscores the party’s early efforts to shed the husk of old leadership after a bruising election in which Clinton was defeated by a historically weak candidate, according to some Democrats who spoke to the Globe for this story.

“For years, they and their vast array of allies had a lock on the Democratic party. That’s not the case anymore,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who’s been taken to task in the past for criticizing the Clintons. “You look at where we are as a party now, and no one should have any problem criticizing how she and her team handled the last election.”

The trouble for the next crop of Democrats is that none of them commands the kind of national presence the former president and first lady still possess. But they can still fill a yawning leadership vacuum on the left, which has yet to produce national voices to effectively counter President Trump.

Even amid the Harvey Weinstein fallout, Hillary Clinton has continued to display her apparent tin ear on matters of universal outrage and to lean on carefully parsed positions and language — traits that have long confounded and irked so many Democrats.


In trying to distinguish between allegations against Senator Al Franken, a Democrat, and those made against Trump and Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, she homed in on the notion that Franken apologized for taking a sexually suggestive photo of his accuser while she was sleeping.

“I deeply regret what he did,” Clinton said during a Nov. 17 interview on WABC Radio. “There’s no excuse for his behavior. But he’s called for an investigation. He’s apologized to the woman involved.” She added that this is “the kind of accountability I’m talking about.”

Nonetheless, the Clintons continue to have a huge following in the Democratic party, as demonstrated by the multiple standing ovations Hillary Clinton received during her sold-out stop at the Opera House in Boston last week.

She’s also opening up to the media, even gabbing last week with conservative radio and TV host Hugh Hewitt, a popular figure on the right whom she ignored during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“Well you know, Hugh, I’m really enjoying this,” Hillary Clinton said toward the end of a lengthy interview. “I can go for a few more minutes, if you want to.”


But even as she sells books and appears to revel in low-stakes publicity events, Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings remain low. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey conducted by Democratic polling firm Hart Research showed only 30 percent of respondents had positive views of her. By comparison, in March 2015, a month before she launched her second presidential bid, 45 percent of respondents in the same survey reported positive views toward her.

And there’s the cold reality that the couple has less power now than at any time since Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992.

“The further away you are from power, the more fair game you are for criticism,” explained Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor and a friend of the Clintons. He noted that Republicans are undertaking a similar reexamination of the Bush legacy in their own party.

“Part of it is just natural,” Rendell said. “The less power you have, the less impact you have.”

He predicted that the recent round of Democratic grousing will end. “There will be a time when the wounds are less raw. And they get back into being esteemed elder statesmen.”

But much of the reconsideration of the Clinton brand is rooted in this moment of reckoning on misconduct toward women, where Bill Clinton’s past exploits, and Hillary Clinton’s alleged complicity in deriding his accusers, are being dredged up by harassment stories from beyond the political realm.

In the 1990s, Hillary Clinton dismissed her husband’s accusers and, according to a book by former staffer George Stephanopoulos, even participated behind the scenes in trying to smear the women.

Bill Clinton’s campaign attacked his accusers as poor white trash whose voices should be discounted. “If you drag a hundred dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find,” Clinton strategist James Carville said in an attempt to rebut the claims against Clinton.

Those comments were considered offensive at the time and fare even worse by today’s standards. Hillary Clinton’s critics are now saying that, at the very least, she could have blocked the campaign and Clinton surrogates from using aggressive tactics.

Carville, in a recent interview with the Globe, said he made the $100 bill comment about Gennifer Flowers, a woman who alleged a consensual affair with Clinton. When asked if he would have done things differently, given what he knows today, Carville said: “I’m older now. I don’t know.”

But others have been far more pointed.

“Not only did people look the other way, but they went after the women who came forward and accused him,” said Sebelius, President Obama’s former secretary of health and human services, in a recent interview on David Axelrod’s podcast. “And so it doubled down on not only bad behavior but abusive behavior. And then people attacked the victims.”

She added that the criticism “absolutely” extends to Hillary Clinton.

Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Hillary Clinton, pointed to her time in public service. “Hillary Clinton has for her whole life protected women and children and worked to advance women’s issues,” Merrill said. “There would have been no president better for women.”

But MSNBC’s Brzezinski became irritated by Hillary Clinton’s attempt to distinguish between Franken’s behavior and Moore’s. “Hillary Clinton needs to stop,” Brzezinski said. “She needs to stop talking about this topic unless Bill Clinton wants to come forward and apologize for being a sexual harasser.”

Gillibrand, the senator from New York, became similarly annoyed.

When asked during a New York Times podcast last month whether Bill Clinton should have stepped down after having had an affair with then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky, she agreed. “Yes, I think that is the appropriate response,” Gillibrand said.

This evoked anger from the Clinton loyalists who’ve been by her side for years. “This was no profile in courage,” former Clinton strategist Philippe Reines said on Twitter. “It’s saying, I will stand up to people for what I believe in — but only when they no longer have any utility to my political ambitions.”

Warren, in a November meeting with Globe editors and reporters, was asked whether she agreed with Gillibrand’s comments.

“I think she walked that back, didn’t she?” Warren said, who had recently walked back her own criticism on how the Democratic primary was conducted. (Gillibrand did not walk back the comments and instead retweeted the podcast where she initially made them.)

Warren offered a more typical Democratic line on Bill Clinton, saying he “paid a big price” for his Oval Office dalliances.

But the Massachusetts senator tested how far to push the Clinton wing of the party in a different way when she said last month that the Democratic primary was “rigged” and thereby aligned herself with an allegation made by Brazile that the Democratic National Committee had its thumb on the scale in favor of Clinton.

She amended her statement later, saying the process was “fair” but there was “some bias” toward Clinton.

Brazile has also been walking a fine line on the 2016 election. Her new book about the 2016 election, entitled “Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns that Put Donald Trump in the White House,” describes how a joint fund-raising agreement between the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee was a “cancer” that let Clinton run the party before she was the nominee.

The book shocked Brazile’s colleagues in the Democratic establishment.

“My book Hacks is about the campaign,’’ Brazile said in a brief e-mail to the Globe. “Not an attack on Hillary.”

Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.