Washington (CNN) – Former President Bill Clinton weighed in Sunday on the lessons learned from the 2008 presidential campaign, when his wife, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, battled then-Sen. Barack Obama through a historic Democratic primary.
At the heart of it, the 42nd president said, candidates need to be able to define themselves before the opposition does it.
"You have to have a strategy for presenting your true self to the voters, in an environment where there are unprecedented opportunities for those who don't want you to win to paint a different picture of your true self," he said in an interview that aired Sunday on ABC's "This Week."
If Hillary Clinton decides to run in 2016, she's well poised to become the leading Democratic contender. With that in mind, pundits and political observers have frequently looked back on her 2008 campaign, one that was criticized for a tightly knit inner circle that didn't listen to outside advice. Clinton also struggled at times with likability issues among some voters. Even Obama skewered her for it: "You're likable enough, Hillary," he said at a primary debate.
In the interview, Bill Clinton said the modern political climate makes it difficult for voters to connect with candidates.
"We have learned that it's a strategy in modern life to make - do reverse plastic surgery on people, so that people don't really know who you are," he said. "That's what I got out of 2008. … There's always, in every campaign, a storyline and a story. And the candidate should want as much as possible for the storyline and the story to coincide."
"But 2008 was way more complicated than that," he added.
Clinton acknowledged that Obama had more experience at elections than Hillary Clinton did at the time, and Obama's grass-roots movement was more advanced technologically. He also faulted the primary season for having too many caucuses, whose rules, he said, are loosely enforced.
In a lengthy New York magazine article about Hillary Clinton last week, her top aides said the former secretary of state had absorbed the lessons of the past.
"She doesn't repeat her mistakes," said Melanne Verveer, an aide to Hillary Clinton when she was first lady, who then served in the State Department as ambassador-at-large for global women's issues. "She really learns from her mistakes. It's like, you want to grow a best practice and then always operate on that. She analyzes, 'What went wrong here?' " Verveer told New York.
Bill Clinton, though not saying anything about his wife's 2016 plans, said the next presidential election "will be better."
"It'll be different," he continued. "Whether she's in it or not, they're all different. And the main thing...is you must learn the lessons of your mistakes and your failures without becoming a general who fights the last war, because every new encounter will be shaped by different forces."