Julian Zelizer,(CNN)From the moment her campaign started, Hillary Clinton has been struggling with the legacy of her husband.
Besides the obvious ways in which Republicans are energized to hate everything with the name Clinton, some of former President Bill Clinton's legacy also hurts Hillary Clinton with the rest of the electorate, including ardent liberals who are passionate about their party.
At every turn, memories of certain parts of Bill Clinton's time in the White House and as post-president have proven to be costly to Hillary. Whether it is fair, he looms large over everything she does (just as George W. Bush's presidency looms over Jeb Bush).
Even though former President Clinton's approval ratings remain high, a number of key aspects of his tenure in national politics pose pretty big problems as she tries to move her own campaign forward.
It is not surprising that she has found it difficult to develop trust among Democrats and independents. The Clinton presidency was defined not only by the investigations conducted by Republicans but also by the president's frequently misleading statements and reckless behavior that landed his party in hot water. Too often Democrats found themselves having to deal with scandals rather than using valuable time to push their policy agenda.
Cabinet furious over Lewinsky Cabinet officials were reportedly furious when the President told them of his affair with Monica Lewinsky after they had all gone out on a limb to publicly defend him from the partisan attack machine. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala severely reprimanded the President in front of his colleagues. It was hard for Democrats to understand how he could take such risks when he knew the opposition was out to get him. Nobody can forget when Clinton wagged his finger at the camera, saying: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman."
These are the kinds of things Democrats are often thinking about when they look at how Hillary Clinton and her team have handled the personal email issue. Most agree there is no evidence of any high crimes and misdemeanors, but her shifting and elusive responses — as she moved from making statements that there was no classified information to there not being information that was classified at the time to her recent apologies — make her appear guilty of something even if it is actually nothing.
When she told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell last week that she was sorry the story had been "confusing to people" she didn't really bring the issue to a conclusion.
Given their history, Hillary Clinton should have been better prepared to handle the "scandal" as it developed. Many voters worry that another shoe will likely drop in the near future, bringing back memories about how so many scandals in the 1990s left Democrats exposed.
Not a time for centrism? Nor do many liberal Democrats feel confident that Hillary Clinton will support their agenda as a result of the centrism and "triangulation" that characterized her husband's time in office. Though today Bill Clinton is loved by most Democrats as one of the toughest partisan fighters in the business, in the 1990s many on the left saw him as a politician willing to sell them out for political gain. Clinton, one of the early members of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, was willing to turn his back on the liberal tradition.
He started his presidency agreeing to a controversial NAFTA free trade agreement that many House Democrats thought was a terrible deal. The President was extremely upset with his opponents. "I have fought more damn battles here for more things than any president has in 20 years with the possible exception of Reagan's first budget and not gotten one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press," he vented to Rolling Stone. But a large number of liberals agreed with Ross Perot, who said NAFTA would suck jobs right out of the United States. Looking back, a large number of them still believe they were spot on with their criticism.
Clinton jettisoned the single-payer health insurance program that Democrats had been fighting for since Truman, and his agreement in 1996 to end Aid to Families and Dependent Children, the major federal public welfare program, was a huge blow to the New Deal tradition. "It really makes people angry and I think it's going to dog him. It's a big, big mistake," argued one official at the National Organization for Women.
Peter Edelman, who quit his job as assistant secretary of social services at HHS in protest of the decision, said while looking back at Clinton's decision: "They don't acknowledge the number of people who were hurt. It's just not their lens. It was predictably bad public policy."
Defense of Marriage Act President Clinton signed punitive crime legislation in 1994 that helped launch the modern era of mass incarceration. In 1996, the President signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as being only between a man and woman and allowed states to prohibit same-sex marriage, though he did so when criticizing the Republicans for sending him a measure that would allow for workplace discrimination. Many liberals seethed. "I'm angry. I wanted Presidnet Clinton to act with the highest moral leadership and he has not here. It is an unheroic move," Human Rights Campaign Executive Director Elizabeth Birch told The New York Times.
All these issues have been circulating throughout the current Democratic campaign. Bernie Sanders is essentially promising he won't be a Bill Clinton Democrat when it comes to dealing with economic issues.
"I think a choice will have to be made by Mrs. Clinton as to how close she is going to be to Wall Street and big business — not only in terms of campaign contributions but also even more importantly in terms of policies," said former Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. Democrats have put pressure on Hillary Clinton to renounce the 1994 crime bill and make clear her commitments to gay rights.
Bill Clinton always was enthusiastic about forging connections to big money in ways that caused big problems. In his mind, Democrats had to abandon their populist skepticism about the problems caused by big money if they wanted to catch up to Republicans in fundraising. And catch up they did.
Clinton's presidency came under intense fire as he moved to deregulate the financial markets by dismantling New Deal reforms that had prevented certain kinds of risky behavior by banks. A series of campaign finance scandals about the ways he courted donors — from allowing campaign contributors to sleep in the White House to his pardon of Marc Rich, who donated to the Clinton presidential library -- left many Democrats shaking their heads in disbelief.
Post-presidency Then there was the Clinton Foundation. In pursuit of building a global foundation that could address important causes, he has undertaken massive fundraising efforts — at the same time he goes on a whirlwind series of high-paying speeches — from a number of shady sources and potentially compromising donors. As this information trickled out to the press in recent months, it raised yet more questions about what this would mean for another Clinton presidency.
There is no way Hillary Clinton can erase the negative legacies of her husband. These issues haunted her in 2008, when Barack Obama raised them in his primary campaign, and will again.
But she has to do more to separate herself from these parts of his legacy and assure voters that this is not the kind of White House she would lead. This doesn't mean bashing her husband or running without him.
Indeed, she must do more to explain what positive contributions her husband made — like major advances on children's health care policy and protecting senior entitlement programs — to help voters understand what she stands for. She also has to be much more aggressive in defining who she is as a political leader, homing in on two or three big issues that she will stand for — such as the battle against economic inequality -- so she can do more to energize the party.
Clinton has the potential to be an incredibly formidable candidate for the Democratic Party. She brings to the table an immense set of political skills and expertise. While one lesson from the 2008 primaries and caucuses was to put enough energy into grass-roots organizing — a lesson her campaign has understood — the other was don't wait so long to explain who you are to voters that your opponents can do the job for you.
Until she does a better job communicating to the public what kind of leader she would be, it will become harder to separate herself from some of the more unsavory aspects of the last time a Clinton was in the White House. (Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society" and co-editor of a new book, "Medicare and Medicaid at 50: America's Entitlement Programs in the Age of Affordable Care." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.)