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Bill Clinton's Zero Effect

The former president didn't help John Kerry--or any other Democrats--on Election Day.

11:00 PM, Nov 21, 2004 • By ERIC PFEIFFER
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NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT IT, but Bill Clinton might be this year's biggest political loser. With the opening of his presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas last week, media attention has focused heavily on the Clinton legacy and what his future role will be in shaping the Democratic party. Practically everyone in Washington has heard the numbers: A $165 million dollar facility, 80 million pages of documents and 14 separate wings dedicated to Clinton's eight years as chief occupant of the White House. However, the number no one is talking about when it comes to the Clinton legacy is zero.

Prior to Clinton's quadruple-bypass heart surgery in September, Democrats salivated at the thought of their two-term former president hitting the campaign trail for John Kerry. Unlike Al Gore, Kerry was not making what most Democrats perceived as a tactical mistake in running from Clinton's record. In fact, Kerry was doing just the opposite, literally promising a nostalgic return to booming markets, sans sexual scandals. And when Clinton returned to the trail in the campaign's closing weeks, Democrats along with the media slipped into something resembling a feeding frenzy. Not only would he have time to campaign for Kerry, along with several key Senate and House races, people, at long last, would feel sorry for him. One of Kerry's key weaknesses, a lack of voter empathy, would be quenched courtesy of the Comeback Kid.

Instead, the results proved far different. Every candidate that Clinton endorsed, raised money for, or conducted a campaign appearance on behalf of, lost. Toss up Senate races in which Clinton appeared all went against the Democrats: Betty Castor in Florida, Chris John in Louisiana, James Hoeffel in Pennsylvania and outgoing Senate minority leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota. In swing states where Clinton put in appearances, such as Arizona and his home state of Arkansas, Kerry also lost.

By contrast, 70 percent of the races in which Hillary Clinton campaigned for her colleagues went against Republicans. That includes tough races such as the Senate match-up in Colorado which went to Democrat Ken Salazar. Former president George H.W. Bush fared even better, winning 9 out of the 11 races in which he campaigned.

As the Democrats seek to rebuild their party image into one that resonates with the "moral values" voter block, a slew of political operatives and liberal media figures, including Clinton himself, have advocated a return to his campaigning philosophy. Many are looking to him to help anoint a successor as chair of the Democratic National Committee. After his installation of Terry McAuliffe as DNC Chair in 2000, one might think they'd reconsider.

While a shift back to more conservative positions on divisive issues such as abortion and gun control may be sound advice, a return to Clinton's story may not carry the weight conventional wisdom seeks to convey. No Democrat since Lyndon Johnson has won more than 50 percent of the popular vote. Both Kerry and Gore received a higher percentage of the popular vote than Clinton did in his 1992 campaign. Under Clinton's reign, Democrats lost control of the Senate and House and gave ground in governorships and state legislatures. During an interview Wednesday evening with Peter Jennings on ABC's World News Tonight, Clinton remained in denial, stating: "There's not any example of where I ever disgraced this country publicly. I made a terrible public-personal mistake, but I paid for it, many times over." Only now, he seems determined to share that payment with anyone in his party willing to foot the bill. One may be the loneliest number, but in politics, zero is far worse.

Eric Pfeiffer is a Senior Writer for the National Journal's Hotline