Letting Bill be Bill

Bill Clinton knows better than anyone how a Democrat gets elected president. Like the eager-beaver smartest kid in class, he loves to tell you.

In 1988 the late Lloyd Bentsen, then the Democratic nominee for vice president, came through Arkansas to campaign. Clinton bounded all around Bentsen, literally waving a sheet of paper. On it he had scripted an ad that he believed Michael Dukakis needed to run to confront and counter the Willie Horton controversy.

Typically, Dukakis was trying to ignore it all.

Clinton's text amounted to a counter-punch, something that acknowledged and absorbed the Horton jab without trying to deny that it's bad, really bad, when a guy gets out of prison on a weekend furlough and kills somebody. But then it tried to say that the presidential race wasn't about one killer or one tragic correctional snafu, but a host of economic issues affecting millions of law-abiding, hard-working people and on which Dukakis presumably had better ideas.

Four years later, Clinton would show everyone what he was talking about.

Now, in this year's context, we must first devote a few words to the petulance and bitterness that has caused Clinton to appear tepid -- indeed, be tepid -- toward Barack Obama.

It's because Clinton, a temperamental guy, is mad -- at himself, for getting tactics and rhetoric wrong in service to his wife's campaign against Obama, and at the Obama campaign for turning one of his nobler things, a solid record of racial sensitivity and progress, against him.

The hard feelings reveal themselves when Clinton spouts the Obama party line as if by mere rote, without enthusiasm. He tepidness is palpable.

Otherwise, though, Clinton has given the Democrats a pretty good blueprint.

While his glowing words about John McCain and his friendly ones about Sarah Palin have exasperated Democrats, he knows what he's doing. He understands that Democrats attack a war hero like McCain at great risk. He knows, as one trained in the common-man connections of Arkansas, that Democrats ridicule Palin also at great risk, because it is the woman's very commonness that people find compelling.

So on Wednesday Clinton made his first campaign appearance for Obama. It was in Florida. Nothing energizes Clinton like a large and adoring crowd, which he gleefully confronted. That's unless it would be poll numbers. And there were fresh ones that day, showing Obama inching ahead in Florida and Ohio and nationally.

Clinton grasped the plain and simple factors: Economic events were accruing dramatically to Democrats' benefit and Palin's horrid performance in an interview with Katie Couric had fomented fear about the Republican ticket, aging at the top and uninformed at the bottom.

In his remarks at that Florida rally, Clinton repeated his observation about why people show a personal affinity for Palin. He reiterated that Democrats needed to be personally respectful. But then he proposed a way to exploit those two poll factors.

He said Democrats must stress that Obama has a better feel for, and better plan for, the economy than does McCain. Then, he said, Democrats need to extol their vice presidential nominee, Joe Biden, for his clear foreign policy bona fides.

That's a message that's positive in both respects. And it's a message that says not a bad word personally about McCain or Palin.

Democrats might do well to cut Clinton a little slack on his petulance and tepidness while taking heed on the strategy and tactics he offers.

That's unless they know of some other Democrat who knows more about getting elected president in the modern time.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.