The Magazine

"Win One for the Groper"?;

Why Gore is right to be wary of Clinton's help

Nov 6, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 08 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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ASK A FEW prominent Democrats about the relationship between Al Gore and Bill Clinton and the word you're most likely to hear, probably more than once, is "psychodrama." According to those who know him, Gore has come to resent a lot of things about Clinton. He resents Clinton's lack of respect for him and for the vice presidency. He resents Clinton's secretive style. He resents the Monica business. He really resents Hillary.

Clinton, meanwhile, didn't always resent Gore, but he does now. Gore is losing the presidential race, and Clinton doesn't understand why he hasn't been called in to bail him out. The president feels rejected. His feelings are hurt.

Officially, the White House dismisses talk of a psychodrama. ("Psychobabble," a spokesman declared the other day.) But on background, virtually every Democratic strategist in Washington seems eager to point out that the "tormented," "touchy," "painful," "complicated" relationship between these two men has hurt Gore's election-year chances. They're probably right. But that doesn't mean that smart Democrats are taking Clinton's side in the spat.

Clinton appears to be under the impression that he could revive the Gore campaign simply by getting out on the road and making the case to the country that Al Gore will extend the glories of the past eight years. Even Clinton's friends aren't so sure this would work. "When they're not on the ballot presidents generally do more harm than good," says a close Clinton ally.

Clinton himself illustrated this in 1994. In late October of that year, Clinton returned to the United States after several days in the Middle East. The trip, which included the first visit in decades by an American president to Syria, was generally considered successful. Clinton's approval ratings were up. By the time he landed at Andrews Air Force Base, Clinton, looking like a statesman, was in an expansive mood. He declared himself "very optimistic" about the midterm elections and eager to start campaigning for Democrats. He spent the next week barnstorming the country. On the eighth day, the Republicans swept both houses of Congress.

Gore's advisers remember this. They also have polling data and analysis of focus groups that indicate many voters, particularly moderate suburbanites, would be less likely to vote for Gore if Clinton were to stump for him. Clinton partisans counter that Clinton's job is not to convince undecided voters, but to turn out the party's base, many of whom still admire the president.

Under some circumstances this would make sense. Sustained campaigning by Clinton could make a difference in a gubernatorial or Senate race. But his relationship to Gore, his own vice president, makes the present situation different. And how can Clinton narrow-cast on the campaign trail? Clinton might set out to reach only voters who already approve of him, but his presence inevitably would be noticed by voters who don't.

Which is the fundamental problem with having Clinton on your side during a close election: For all his talents, he remains an embarrassing figure. Any appearances Clinton makes on Gore's behalf are apt to be awkward. "What would the theme of the trip be?" asks Brian Lunde, a longtime Democratic consultant who has endorsed Bush. "Go out and win one for the Groper?"

Clinton isn't the first politician to find himself wildly popular with certain constituencies and despised by others. "Ted Kennedy had the same problem when I worked for him," says a Democratic political operative. "In election years, he'd tell our colleagues from the South, 'I'll campaign for or against you, whichever does more good.'" Kennedy, says his former employee, understood how voters perceived him. "And he dealt with it in an adult fashion." Clinton can't, or won't, do this. From the point of view of Gore's advisers, Clinton is intent on forcing himself on the campaign, whether it helps or not.

There is, of course, a middle way. Clinton could stay home and help direct Gore's campaign privately. This sounds like a pretty good idea. Except that it's not clear Clinton, for all his famed campaign savvy, would make a particularly effective consultant. Clinton's political judgment can be terrible. It was Clinton who, over the objections of advisers Bob Shrum and Paul Begala, insisted on delivering his disastrously belligerent August 17, 1998, speech to the nation during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. More recently, it was Clinton who advised strategists in Nashville to make Gore watch the devastating Saturday Night Live parody of his performance in the first debate. Not surprisingly, Gore was spooked by the tape, and stumbled badly in the second debate.