For Bill Clinton, a Chance to Address a Party That Has Left Him Behind

Bill Clinton was a prime-time star when Democrats gathered in 2012 to nominate President Barack Obama for a second term, delivering a 48-minute speech that stretched way past his allotted time and all but stole the show from the incumbent. The crowd loved it.

But as Democrats hold their virtual nominating convention this week, Mr. Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States, is almost an afterthought. He will speak for less than five minutes on Tuesday, well before the 10 p.m. prime-time hour, in an address that he prerecorded from his home in Chappaqua, N.Y.

This will be the first Democratic convention in 36 years where Mr. Clinton will be little more than a bystander. Other than legacy-burnishing, there is almost nothing explicitly at stake for him politically. He is not running for president, thinking of running for president or promoting a spouse or protégé running for president.

Mr. Clinton’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-him moment before a party that once revered him is testimony to how his influence has faded, a reflection of time and age, to be sure — he is turning 74 on Wednesday — but also of the baggage he carries with the re-examination of allegations of sexual assault and harassment over his years in public life in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

It is also testimony to a Democratic Party transformation that left Mr. Clinton behind with stunning speed in just four years. It is not purely generational; Mr. Clinton is still three years younger than the man who will be nominated this week, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. It is ideological, too. During his time in office from 1993 to 2001, Mr. Clinton, the “third way” New Democrat, moved his party to the center on issues like trade, welfare and crime — all positions out of step with a party that has shifted steadily to the left.

“The world has changed, and with that the Democratic Party,” said Douglas Sosnik, who served as Mr. Clinton’s White House political director. “It is no longer the same party that selected Bill Clinton as its nominee almost 30 years ago, nor the one that made President Obama its standard-bearer in 2008. Vice President Biden said as much, calling himself ‘a transition candidate’ as the party shifts into this new era in American politics.”

Mr. Clinton, friends say, remains intensely interested in — and opinionated about — politics, with no shortage of advice for any Democrat who reaches out to him. Among those who have been on the receiving end of his counsel, according to advisers, is Mr. Biden, as well as Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, Mr. Biden’s campaign manager, and Steve Ricchetti, his campaign adviser and a former Clinton White House official.

“The president will always be a person who studies politics more than he is in politics,” said Minyon Moore, another former White House aide who speaks regularly with Mr. Clinton. “I don’t know how President Clinton, a man who turns 74 this week, stays on top of so many details about culture, the economy, the trends in America and how things are changing around world.”

But in this age of the coronavirus, Mr. Clinton, who underwent quadruple bypass surgery in 2004, has become increasingly constrained and cautious, wary of his health, friends said. He has remained largely secluded at his home in Westchester County and has all but stopped playing golf.

“It’s a great sport for Covid, I tell him,” said Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia and a longtime friend and golfing partner. “He just doesn’t take any chances. None.”

Instead, Mr. Clinton has devoted his time to his foundation, working with other organizations to provide more than 650,000 meals to Central Arkansas families during the pandemic. He is finishing a second novel with James Patterson (titled “The President’s Daughter”) and is working on another book about his post-presidential life. His recreational activities consist mainly of taking walks in the nearby woods, often with three grandchildren. His daughter, Chelsea Clinton, and her husband, Marc Mezvinsky, live next door.

Any stumping he does for Mr. Biden, if the campaign wants to put him to work, will almost certainly be virtual. Otherwise, his rare trips lately have been to funerals, including the one in Atlanta for Representative John Lewis, where the former president spoke before returning to an empty spot in the pews, wearing a mask.

Mr. Clinton remains a complicated figure in many parts of the country. The emergence of the #MeToo movement prompted a reappraisal among some on the left about the various accusations of sexual misconduct lodged against him, not just the affair with Monica S. Lewinsky that he eventually admitted to, but allegations of harassment or assault by Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones that he continues to deny.

He remains generally popular with Democrats but a passing figure for many seeking a more activist era. A CBS News poll released last weekend found that 56 percent of Democrats wanted to hear Mr. Clinton speak, compared with 44 percent who did not. By contrast, 63 percent wanted to hear from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York Democrat who has become the vanguard of the party’s emerging left wing.

“It’s been 25 years since he’s been president,” said Patti Solis Doyle, a former aide to Hillary Clinton and her first campaign manager in 2008. “He ran much more as a conservative; he governed much more as a conservative. The party now has moved further left than it has ever been. I think his time as a politician has passed.”

Still, other former advisers said Mr. Clinton’s record might be more centrist, but his goals were the same — to lift those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

“If you talk to the people on the left, they’ll argue that they have a different theory of the case,” said John D. Podesta, his former White House chief of staff. “But when you look at the results, he delivered what people are saying they want. All those indicators were extremely strong during his presidency. That’s basically his legacy. He knew how to govern on behalf of the people who brought him to the dance.”

Mr. Biden and Mr. Clinton in some ways have similar political styles, both extroverts who turn on the charm on the campaign trail and connect with voters on a personal level. They share some policy achievements as well, including some that have come back to haunt them, like the signature crime bill that Mr. Biden helped push through Congress and Mr. Clinton signed in 1994 with mandatory sentencing that both have said they regret.

Yet Mr. Biden has had his testy moments with the Clintons over the years. In 1998, after learning that Mr. Clinton had lied about having sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, Mr. Biden said he wanted to “punch him right square in the nose.” More recently, he and Mrs. Clinton were rivals over who would carry the Obama torch, with him ultimately deferring to her in 2016 only to rue the decision after Donald J. Trump narrowly beat her.

Mr. Obama’s convention organizers that year had forced Mr. Clinton to cut his speech in half to keep within the scheduled time, so the loquacious former president simply added back much of the deleted material from memory while onstage. Few television stations broke away, even as the clock passed 11 p.m., and a grateful Mr. Obama later called Mr. Clinton “the secretary of ’splaining stuff.’”

There will be no ad-libs claiming extra time this year, since his speech was prerecorded. Convention organizers said this was not a pre-emptive action to prevent Mr. Clinton from again stealing the spotlight. He is one of many Democrats taping their remarks in advance for this virtual convention, with one particularly notable exception: Hillary Clinton, who will speak live on Wednesday.

But by design or not, it seems likely to minimize the influence of a Democrat who accepted his party’s nomination for a second term in 1996 by promising to be the president who would build “that bridge to the 21st century.”

Mr. McAuliffe said the former president did not have to clear his speech with the Biden campaign. “It’s hard to vet the former president of the United States,” he said. “I think they know what they want him to say.”

“This man has been doing this for every convention since 1980,” he said. “And he’s, what, 73 years old? He’s still in the game. You have to give him credit.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.