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.
Clinton is a problem for Gore. But that doesn't mean Gore ought to pretend they never worked together. You'd assume that every Gore speech -- whether about the economy or foreign policy or the space program -- would revolve around a single talking point: "During the eight years I've been vice president, America has become far more prosperous than it was." This is a simple argument. It would be effective. It is even, technically speaking, true. For some reason Gore rarely makes it.
Gore watchers attribute this, too, to the psychodrama. Gore can't stand to be reminded of Clinton, even when talking about Clintonism would help him. "He wants to win as his 'own man,'" says one Democratic strategist. "Why not just win?"
The irony in all this, as a number of Democrats watching from the sidelines point out, is that in trying to run as his own man, Gore has often turned the conversation back to Clinton. Gore's announcement speech last June, for instance, was almost entirely overshadowed by Gore's own efforts to distance himself from Clinton's marital problems. "They actually called reporters about it," growls someone who watched it happen. "Gore's message became: 'Let me talk to you about how I've decided I'm against adultery.'"
The other problem with Gore's reluctance to talk about his role in the Clinton administration is that it leaves him little to talk about. For months, Gore devoted a large portion of his stump speech to his biography. This was a calculated attempt to "reintroduce" himself to voters. But the person who Gore reintroduced wasn't very impressive. Gore didn't play up the highlights of his eight years as vice president, his work shaping welfare reform, or fighting for NAFTA. Instead, he prattled on about his years as reporter on a mediocre regional newspaper. He sounded phonier than ever.
He still sounds that way. Except weirder. Gore seems to have decided that instead of talking about his career as vice president, he will talk about his personal life -- the experience of being "his own man." As the election looms closer, Gore talks about his Own Man-ness in more and more detail. The stories become less convincing the more detailed they get.
Last week, Gore gave an interview to Queen Latifah, a former rap singer who has gone into the talk show business. Latifah asked Gore if he had ever "worn leather pants." No, Gore said. But he did once have a leather vest. He wore it when he rode his motorcycle. And boy, did he ride his motorcycle. One time in Boston, Gore said, he put three people on the back of it. Apparently that didn't sit well with the local fuzz. "There was a blue light, and I can't say for sure that they were coming after us. Just on the off chance that they were we cut through an alleyway." The cops blew past. Gore lived to cruise the boulevard another day. "I look back on those days and I feel like I'm very lucky to have survived." Al Gore as Marlon Brando? He'd be better off defending Clinton.
Tucker Carlsonn is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.