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It's Dunkirk, Stupid

11:00 PM, Feb 21, 1999 • By MIKE MURPHY
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In light of the conclusion of the Senate trial of the president, the editors of THE WEEKLY STANDARD asked 22 writers, thinkers, and political actors the following questions: "President William Jefferson Clinton has been impeached and acquitted. What have we learned? What should we do now?"

HE GOT AWAY WITH IT. So, conservatives are depressed. Here's the good news: The entire six-years-and-running Clinton/Gore confidence scam peaked on Friday, the day of Clinton's acquittal. It's all over.

The irony is that, like a mob accountant who "only kept the books," Al Gore is the one who will pay the ultimate political price for Bill Clinton. Al Gore will never be president. Washington, always obsessed with the last war, will be the last to see this coming, but come it will. The truth is, America doesn't much like Al Gore to begin with, and now the mainspring of election 2000 will be a great national urge to change the channel and try something else.

Already, New Hampshire polls say only 34 percent of Democratic primary voters support Gore for president. Sixty-six percent are looking elsewhere. Combine that kind of weakness with the super-fast 2000 primary schedule designed to help an insurgent challenger, and don't be surprised when Bill Bradley gives Gore the race of his life for the nomination, a race Bradley has a real shot at winning.

Outside of Democratic politics, it is even worse. Any Republican with name identification beats Gore in national polls. Gore's problem is that he is old news. He's not change, he's not new; he's just the political aftertaste of Nixon-lite, Bill Clinton. Like Jerry Ford, Gore lacks a real public identity or a galvanizing message. He's been only a bit player in the president's low-budget movie, and now the credits are rolling, and the audience will not be screaming for a sequel.

Ask a Gore partisan about all this, and you'll hear an earful of well-polished happy-think. Gore has lined up all the generals and bosses in the Democratic party, so winning the primary is a cinch. And, of course, the American people so hate the evil Republicans that a grateful public will happily waltz good ol' Al right into office. Etc., etc.

They're dreaming. The bosses and generals so favored by Democratic front-runners in Washington can't deliver a pizza, let alone New Hampshire. Ask Ed Muskie, Scoop Jackson, or Walter Mondale. Besides, nobody loves Bill Clinton enough to walk across the street for him, let alone elect his successor two years from now. Next year, Gore won't even be able to use Clinton's patented gooey-centrist policy shtick. Remember that Clinton's hokum campaign was fueled by purloined GOP ideas. Al Gore has to endure a real, live Democratic primary. Try a message about welfare reform, shrinking government, NAFTA, and increasing Internet bandwidth there, Al. You'll get to see Bradley's new jump shot.

No issues. No legacy. That leaves character. Public character. And the problem isn't just the Buddhist monk donors, Red Chinese slush money, and so forth, but the Clinton scandal. Gore has been silent about the president. He hasn't even coughed up the phony platitudes the Democratic acquittal caucus in Congress uses to describe how deeply bothered they are by the very crimes they refused to punish.

Gore has just sat there keeping the books, looking the other way, polishing his own ambition. It's fitting that he will take the ultimate fall.

Conservatives should cheer up. The impeachment battle was a defeat, but so was Dunkirk. Fight on. We'll be in Berlin in less than two years.

Mike Murphy, a political consultant, has run sixteen successful statewide GOP campaigns.