WASHINGTON - Is Bill Clinton deliberately sabotaging U.S. President Barack Obama?
That was the big question in the U.S. capital on Wednesday, the day after the former president once again parted ways with the Obama campaign on a crucial election issue — the extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts.
Clinton, who's been campaigning for Obama ahead of the November election, told CNBC that those tax cuts should be extended temporarily at the end of the year, even for the wealthiest Americans.
That's in direct opposition to the Obama administration's approach to slashing the country's mammoth US$15.7 trillion national debt. The White House wants those tax cuts to expire for Americans earning more than $250,000 a year, saying the country's richest people must contribute to efforts to rein in ballooning federal deficits.
The fallout was fast and furious as Republicans immediately pounced on the 42nd president's remarks, saying they proved even an adored Democrat like Clinton is onside with the Republicans.
"Even Bill Clinton came out for it, before he was against it," John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, said Wednesday.
Indeed, within a couple of hours of Clinton's remarks on Wednesday night on CNBC, a spokesman walked them back, insisting the one-time commander-in-chief "does not believe the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans should be extended again."
It was the second Clinton-induced migraine in less than a week for Obama's re-election team.
Last week, Clinton said Obama's Republican rival for the White House, Mitt Romney, had a "sterling" record at private equity firm Bain Capital. The Obama re-election team, meantime, has been criticizing Romney's tenure at Bain, portraying him as nothing more than a corporate raider who threw people out of work in order to line his pockets.
What is going on?
A former adviser says the 65-year-old Clinton does not want Obama to win the November election.
"He never liked him, they never got along," Dick Morris, now a Republican strategist, told Fox News this week of the pair's famously complex relationship.
"He's an in-law, in a sense, because (Hillary Clinton) is in the administration .... but when it comes to a little jab there, a little jab here, you can count on Clinton to do it."
A one-time campaign worker for Hillary Clinton says Obama's secretary of state intends to run for president in 2016, and many of her loyalists — her husband the biggest and most ambitious among them — believe she has a better chance of winning if she faces Romney at the end of his first term.
In other words, Clintonites won't be terribly heartbroken if Obama loses in November.
"Let's face it, her chances diminish dramatically if a Democratic president has just served two terms," said the strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Hillary Clinton has denied any intention to run in 2016. She insists, however, that she is not interested in being secretary of state in a second Obama term.
Her husband, meantime, has sounded a different tone.
"She's told you and everybody else that she thinks she'll probably never run for office again," he recently told NBC's Luke Russert.
"But I've been there; I know what happens when you go through this decompression after years of relentless, high-pressure activity. And I just think she needs to rest up, do some things she cares about, and whatever she decides to do, I'll support."
Charles Krauthammer, the conservative Washington Post columnist, has called Clinton a "bull in a china shop" and a "loose cannon, a double agent" as he campaigns for Obama.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, meantime, called Clinton "the gift that keeps on giving" on Wednesday.
But Stephen Hess, a one-time aide to Richard Nixon, says Bill Clinton is just being Bill Clinton.
"I don't think he's truly trying to deliberately sabotage anybody; I think it's just him — you turn on Bill Clinton, and you can walk away and come back in a half hour and he's still telling you the history of the Swiss watch industry or whatever it might be," said Hess, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"He is loquacious, to say the least. He doesn't speak in sound bites. It's hard to turn him off. And then he reads the transcript and wonders: 'Did I really say that?' That's very much his MO — he apologizes, he says he was taken out of context, he carries on."
Clinton, for his part, responded indignantly when asked about a column this week by Roger Simon of Politico.com. Simon opined that Clinton is "sabotaging Obama's strategy" on the campaign trail.
"Mr. Simon may think I should be an employee of the campaign, but I'm not," Clinton told NBC. "I've been aghast by all this flutter."