Coelho and Company

The late H.R. Haldeman, Richard Nixon's chief of staff, once said, "Every president needs his son of a bitch. And I'm Nixon's." In May, Al Gore decided that he needed one too. Gore's decision to hire former California congressman Tony Coelho as his campaign's general chairman was met at the time with a mix of relief, bewilderment, and disgust.

Few doubted Coelho's organizational talents, but those talents came with undeniable baggage. Coelho made his name in the 1980s by pressing up against the outer frontiers of legality and propriety in his efforts to raise money for the Democratic Party, first as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and then later as majority whip. And though Coelho was forced to resign from the House in 1989 in the face of a looming campaign finance-related ethics investigation, the influence of the work he did back in the 1980s has ramified powerfully into the present. Coelho's former finance director back at the DCCC, Terry McAuliffe, later resurfaced as one of President Clinton's most important fundraising wizards (as well as mortgage guarantor for the Clintons' new house in Chappaqua, New York). Coelho personifies the party's renewed reliance on big corporate money and the host of compromises that entails.

Whatever one makes of Coelho's past, his effect on the vice president's campaign has been far broader than fundraising. Since taking over in May, he has cut a deep swath of firings and shake-ups. One of the first to depart was Ron Klain, Gore's chief of staff. Coelho then hired longtime Gore friend Carter Eskew to coordinate message for the campaign. This move displaced campaign media chief Bob Squier, another longtime associate of the vice president, who had been Eskew's business partner and mentor until a bitter falling-out in early 1992. Coelho neglected to tell Squier he was hiring Eskew until just before he announced it to the press.

Like Coelho, Eskew came with baggage. While the Clinton-Gore administration has made the fight against Big Tobacco one of its most consistent policy goals, Eskew masterminded Big Tobacco's ultimately successful $40 million ad campaign to fend off tough anti-tobacco legislation in the 105th Congress. For many older Democratic liberals, Coelho's fundraising practices at the DCCC amount to a permanent taint and signal that the vice president's campaign will continue the cautious, business-friendly politics of the Clinton administration. (Coelho has been one of the voices counseling caution on environmental policy, lest the vice president scare off business support.) But, for the younger generation of Democrats who are the foot soldiers of Gore's 2000 campaign, it's Eskew's transgression that cuts far deeper. As one Gore staffer, who says he's made his peace with Eskew's new role, recently told me, "Having done what he did, I don't know how he sleeps at night. I guess he's sleeping on a bed of cash."

Yet even Coelho's critics concede that he has streamlined what was a bureaucratic mess of a campaign. The daily press was partly right to portray Gore's dramatic decision to move his campaign to Nashville as a panicked, even desperate, response to Bradley's surprising surge in polls and fundraising receipts. But the move was also a culmination of a lengthy process by which most of Gore's senior campaign staffers were eased out and replaced by newcomers. Coelho did not have a precise hit list ("I don't think all the blanks were filled in," one friend of the vice president's told me), but Coelho clearly had a mandate.

The vice president's earlier campaign had been a comfortable operation whose principal aides hardly had to alter their lives, or even their work addresses, to sign on. Moving the campaign to Nashville allowed many staffers a graceful exit, and it also served as an on-the-job test to see which campaign hands were willing to seriously disrupt their lives to stay on board and work for a boss—Tony Coelho—whose turbulent and sometimes bullying management style is not for the faint of heart.

Top-Heavy

When the vice president set up his campaign apparatus late last year, it had the look of the ultimate, well-oiled campaign machine—the kind of operation that can be assembled only by an all-but- certain nominee with the luxury of resources and time. But in the new post-impeachment climate of 1999, the organization began to reveal itself as a baroque version of Clinton-Gore 1996: a campaign brimming with careerists, dependent on the pulleys and levers of incumbency, and wedded to the policy morselism of Dick Morris and Mark Penn. The staffers—a mix of government appointees, longtime Gore loyalists, and political consultants who had made their names in earlier Clinton-Gore campaigns—were nearly all members of Clinton-Gore, Inc. But by the time of the move to Nashville, Squier had left the campaign, leaving Eskew with undisputed control over campaign message; pollster Mark Penn had been sacked in favor of Harrison Hickman; campaign manager Craig Smith had been replaced by longtime Democratic organizer and strategist Donna Brazile; and a host of lesser-known figures had been eased out as well.

The comfortable, careerist nature of the vice president's original campaign structure was nicely embodied by Penn. In addition to his duties at Gore 2000, he worked for the White House, Hillary Clinton's nascent New York Senate campaign, and a host of corporate clients like Microsoft. The presidential campaign of the likely Democratic nominee was only one of several accounts Penn's firm was handling—a situation both he and Gore should have realized was untenable. Penn's response to his ouster was revealing. Just after he was cut loose in early October, he made himself the source, rather transparently, for a number of articles about the vice president (most notably an October 9 New York Times article by political reporter Richard Berke), simultaneously washing his own hands of any responsibility for Gore's troubles and ensuring the vice president several more days of hideously bad press. As one former Gore staffer put it, the headline of the Times article should have read "Penn to Gore: Fuck You."

Another revealing sign of just how institutionalized Clinton-Gore had become was Gore's choice of Craig Smith as his campaign manager. Smith had worked for Bill Clinton, in one fashion or another, since the late 1980s; he was the first staffer hired by Clinton's first presidential campaign, opening an office across the street from the governor's mansion on Clinton's instructions back in early 1991. Smith's ouster was likely due more to his résumé than to any inherent personal failing. But like many others leaving the Gore campaign, for Smith, running a presidential campaign had become less a chance of a lifetime than a quadrennial exercise.

Of course every political campaign is a bundle of egos and ambitions, momentarily yoked together to achieve a common goal, if sometimes for rather different reasons. But Gore's original staffers seemed inordinately focused on their own reputations and professionalism rather than Gore's electoral fate.

The contrast between Smith and his successor Donna Brazile is emblematic, in another way, of the changing face of the vice president's campaign. Associates describe Brazile as savvy, brassy, aggressive, in your face—words that can sound admiring or less than charitable, depending on the tone with which they are delivered. Brazile almost ended her political career in 1988 when she was fired by the Dukakis campaign for trying, in a moment of desperation, to bait reporters into pursuing rumors about an alleged affair of George Bush's. After a period in the political wilderness, Brazile became chief of staff to D.C. non voting congressional delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, where she worked until May. Given the criticism that the Gore operation was too male and too white, being an African-American woman doubtlessly helped Brazile get the job. But the work that recommended her for her new role was her successful 1998 program to boost African-American voter participation in the midterm election—an effort credited not only with keeping a number of African American representatives in Congress but also winning several close state wide races—most notably in Georgia and Maryland.

Brazile's get-out-the-vote program was not only successful; it was also qualitatively different from what preceded it. In the South, it has long been the custom to organize get-out-the-vote drives in lower-income areas in a less than savory fashion, with money distributed to so-called "haulers" who bring voters into the precincts, and so forth. Brazile focused resources instead on an array of targeted direct mail, recorded telephone messages from national party leaders, and commercials on African-American radio stations. In essence she approached the matter the way political operatives approach suburban voters.

Brazile's efforts in 1998 were actually part of an interrelated series of developments stretching back to 1994. After the Democrats lost the House that year, it became apparent just how much the party's ground-level infrastructure had been allowed to atrophy under the sheltering umbrella of incumbency. In 1996 organized labor expended great sums of money on TV ads aimed at vulnerable freshman Republicans. But after this approach proved disappointing, the unions reallocated funds from media-driven ad campaigns toward grass-roots organizing, voter awareness, and get-out-the-vote efforts. And like the get-out-the-vote effort aimed at African-American voters, labor's new emphasis on grass-roots, person-to-person organizing yielded measurable results in 1998, showing again the decisive effect that organized and motivated constituencies can have in generally low-turnout elections.

The Soul of a Machine

Ironically, the recent shake-up in the Gore operation has pushed his campaign more in a direction that emphasizes solidifying the Democratic base. And thus the great inverted complexity of the Bradley-Gore race: the seeming disjuncture between message and demographic base. While Bradley has pitched himself as the candidate who will restore the party's core ideals, his key electoral strength has come from those who would seem to be least attached to them. Despite a layering of support for Bradley among left-liberal politicos, writers, and intellectuals, polls have consistently shown that his support skews affluent, male, and white. Mean while, Gore's strongest support comes from African Americans, women, and voters with incomes less than $30,000 per year.

A Gallup poll conducted during Bradley's recent surge (October 8-10) showed that his gains came exclusively among voters making more than $30,000 a year. Bradley beat Gore 52 percent to 39 percent among voters in the $30,000 to $50,000 income range, and he tied the vice president with voters making over $50,000 per year. But among voters making less than $30,000 per year, Gore held a two-to-one advantage. The surge in support for Bradley skewed similarly, if less markedly, along gender lines. In the same poll, men showed a slight (43 percent to 40 percent) preference for Bradley in contrast to an overwhelming (61 percent to 31 percent) preference for Gore only a month before. Gore lost support among women, too, but to a much lesser degree. The vice president's advantage among women dropped to 23 percent in contrast to a 37-percent lead the month before. Another poll conducted by CBS News a week earlier (September 29-October 4), which showed Bradley with the same advantages among college-educated voters, higher-income voters, and men, also showed that Gore had a three-to-one lead over Bradley among African-American Democrats.

By late in October, Gore had recovered some of the ground he had earlier lost to Bradley. But as a USA TODAY / CNN / Gallup poll released on October 25 showed, this mild rebound was largely a matter of regaining some ground among men and voters earning over $50,000 a year. In short, the Bradley campaign is resonating with sushi-and- Starbucks Democrats while Gore is getting most of his support from the party's base.

This does not mean necessarily that Gore has abandoned Clintonian policy incrementalism, though the dynamics of the campaign have clearly pulled him to the left. In fact, in late October, Gore opened what amounted to a second, New Democrat front in his battle with Bradley, calling him a "throwback" to the bad old days before Bill Clinton taught Democrats to live within their means. Indeed, while Gore has reshuffled his campaign operatives, his policy advisers still come from the party's New Democrat wing. The shift does suggest, however, that Gore has at least partly shifted the structure of his campaign away from the suburban emphasis of Clinton-Gore '96.

To many in the party, there is an apparent contradiction in the fact that the nominally more centrist candidate is garnering the support of the party's base constituencies. But looked at from a certain historical perspective, it makes a good deal of sense. The dynamics and contours of the Bradley-Gore race are actually rather analogous to those of the 1950s and 1960s between regular urban-machine Democrats on the one hand and reform Democratic clubs on the other, particularly in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic. The paradoxes of electoral support and policy agenda are really quite similar. The reform Democrats had the cleaner campaigns, and they were more liberal in policy terms, but the machine types often had a tighter lock on the base constituencies.

And thus one of the intriguing aspects of the recent changes in the vice president's campaign: Democratic political insiders who have generally cheered the vice president's recent moves usually speak of putting together a campaign team hungry enough to win—a lean machine. One might also say that Gore's campaign is benefiting from being staffed by a more pragmatic, hard- bitten, occasionally nasty group of operatives. But this is about more than being hungry. Most of the consultants and staffers thrown overboard in recent weeks are not simply longtime Clinton-Gore retainers and careerists. They are more specifically products of what might be termed the Clinton Retrenchment—the shift in course the administration took after the disastrous 1994 midterm elections.

That shift is often viewed in ideological terms, but its tactical dimension ran even deeper. Heavily scripted and minutely polled, it almost wholly prioritized tactics over strategy, even if the likes of Mark Penn and Dick Morris saw policy morselism as a winning political agenda in itself. It succeeded politically in 1996 because it was essentially defensive in nature. Bill Clinton was engaged in finding out the contours of the post-New Deal state, which could be made politically defensible in his battles with congressional Republicans: an approach made possible by the backlash against the Republican government shutdowns during the winter of 1995-96. Many Democrats who have abandoned Gore for Bill Bradley did so in part out of impatience with just that sort of politics—which Gore has in some ways now abandoned. And now, in tossing aside many Clinton-Gore hangers-on, Gore has assembled a campaign that more closely resembles the team of relative unknowns Clinton ran with back in 1991 and 1992.

Tough tony, Tough Al

Part of the rap against Al Gore has always been that the softness of his upbringing has denied him the hard-nosed will and political moxie that his biological father Al Gore, Sr., and his political father Bill Clinton so clearly have in abundance. But his recent moves in hiring Coelho and reorganizing his campaign suggest a tougher Gore. It now seems clear that Gore brought in Coelho to root out the loyalists in his own camp—almost in the manner of what used to be known as a presidential coup, where the head of state stages a coup against his own loyalists and advisers. Tossing aside people who have signed on to work for you isn't a pretty process. But in doing so, Gore has shown a decisive, sometimes calculating, and even ruthless side of himself that is often the mark of a truly successful politician. But this actually squares with a seldom-explored part of Gore's political bio. Throughout his career, Gore has been inclined to play the political game by gentlemen's rules—until he gets in trouble, when he is willing to play rough, even very rough.

The Gore-Coelho connection actually dates to the early days of Gore's congressional career when Coelho (who had one of the country's biggest cotton concerns located in his district) helped Gore shake loose some campaign support from cotton growers back home. According to one longtime observer, Gore has enough of the blue blood about him to find all of the mechanics of electoral politics a bit unseemly—the deals, the polls, the money. But when he needs to, he dirties his hands anyway. And that quirk in the vice president's political character may account for the tin ear he sometimes has for political appearances.

Gore is a fighter, but a reactive one, often lacking the intuitive political agility to anticipate when to switch moves. Gore's admirers say that he is more politically crafty and creative than his press notices and that the cocoon of advisers (from which he has now allegedly broken free) often stifles or inhibits these more dynamic political qualities. But it still evidently requires a whiff of disaster for Gore to shake himself free of an ingrained caution and conventionality.

In tossing aside so many old Clinton-Gore hands, Gore has, in a sense, conceded part of the premise of Bradley's campaign: that it is time to move beyond some of the languor and caution of the late Clinton years. The vice president must now answer the question of whether he is simply the best example of a comfortable Clinton-era careerist who lacks the hunger and imagination to adapt to or, in fact, create the post-Clinton era.

Just as the once-quixotic nature of Bradley's campaign seemed to melt away some of his notorious rigidity and detachment, looking disaster in the face has had a liberating effect on the vice president as well. At one of his first post-Nashville-announcement press opportunities, Gore riffed on Janis Joplin's line "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose," to predictable media derision. But he actually seemed to be following another 1960s mantra: that campaigns not busy being born are busy dying.

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