It’s easy to forget that Terry McAuliffe’s role in elected office in Virginia is almost entirely because of his past relationship with Bill and Hillary Clinton. His connection to the Clintons is, in the words of the Washington Post, “a friendship as close as family.” McAuliffe was co-chairman of President Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2005, and chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. As governor, McAuliffe threw himself into the role of campaign surrogate for Hillary in 2016. Bill Clinton is still holding fundraisers for McAuliffe in 2021.
Being a friend or former team member of the Clintons hasn’t always paid big dividends at the ballot box. Only a handful of figures in Clinton’s inner circle and cabinet succeeded in their bids for office – and the ones that won often encountered their own scandals.
Former chief of staff Erskine B. Bowles lost Senate races in North Carolina in 2002 and 2004. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich lost in the Massachusetts gubernatorial primary in 2002. The late former attorney general Janet Reno ran for governor of Florida in 2002, but lost in the primary.
Former Health and Human Services secretary Donna Shalala was elected to a Florida congressional seat in 2018, but lost in 2020.
Former Energy Secretary Bill Richardson did win two terms as governor of New Mexico, but withdrew from consideration to be Barack Obama’s Secretary of Commerce, citing the distraction of a federal investigation into ties to a company that has done business with his state. Rahm Emanuel was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and had enjoyed two tumultuous terms as mayor of Chicago, and is President Biden’s nominee to be ambassador to Japan. And then there’s former Housing and Urban Development secretary Andrew Cuomo; you probably noticed the ignoble end to his career in elected office.
Beyond Emanuel, the Clinton crowd is largely gone from American policymaking. Bill and Hillary Clinton are now afterthoughts in the Democratic Party of 2021. Hillary Clinton is the one candidate in the entire world to lose to Donald Trump in a general election, and Bill Clinton’s sordid escapades look irredeemable in the cold harsh light of the #MeToo movement. You still see Al Gore, Madeline Albright, James Carville, and other figures from that era quoted here and there, but they’re largely in the metaphorical retirement home of American politics. (Monica Lewinsky turned 48 this past July.) George Stephanopolous is still an anchor at ABC News. But by and large, the Clinton era of American politics is over, as dated as Windows 95, the Macarena, the sound of dial-up Internet and “Mambo No.5.”
McAuliffe’s defeat tonight would not just mean closing the book on the era of the Clintons; it would put the book on the shelf to collect dust.
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