Former president Bill Clinton was enjoying a
holiday break in Mexico with
his wife and daughter when an SUV killed his chocolate lab, Buddy, near his home
in Chappaqua, New York. If the dog had not died, few would have known that
Clinton was on vacation. A year earlier, he could not travel a city block without
a motorcade and the White House press pool following him.
Bill Clinton and Al Gore, the duo who dominated Democratic politics from the
White House for eight years, have virtually disappeared from public view. At the
memorial services held after September 11, they played their silent roles as
extras, part of an appropriate bipartisan tableau of national mourning. But as
the Bush administration systematically reverses many policy positions of the
Clinton-Gore years through executive order, legislation, and regulation, the men
who prided themselves on remaking the Democratic Party are AWOL, focusing on the
personal rather than the political.
Those close to Clinton say he appreciates that this is not the time for him to
be out front. He has debts to retire, a book to write, a library to build, and a
reputation to salvage. In January alone, he traveled through the Middle East on a
lecture tour that included the dedication of the Clinton Program for American
Studies at Tel Aviv University, spoke to the National Baptist Convention in
Little Rock, Arkansas, and hosted a daylong conference on Islam at New York
University. "He is so busy," observes a former aide, "his Secret Service detail
is busier than Bush's. He is everywhere."
Among various civic good deeds, Clinton has helped City Year--the Boston-based
volunteer program for young people and the inspiration for AmeriCorps--to
introduce a pilot program in South Africa. He and Nelson Mandela (who also was
involved in the City Year project) are raising money for a community-based
anti-AIDS program in South Africa, where Mandela's successors have resisted
taking action on a national level. He joined former Senate majority leader Bob
Dole in setting up a college-scholarship fund to raise a projected $100 million
for children of the September 11 victims. Scores of pregnant women lost their
husbands in the terrorist attacks--at least 50 at the bond-trading firm of Cantor
Fitzgerald alone. Political consultant Paul Begala says that Clinton strongly
identifies with the pregnant widows and their unborn babies because his own
father died in a car crash months before his birth.
As for Gore, his defeat left him depleted. Effectively withdrawn from the
political realm for now, he is writing a book with his wife Tipper and focusing
on his new job as vice chairman at Metropolitan West Financial, an investment
services firm in Los Angeles. Close associates say that he does not know yet what
he intends to do in politics.
Clinton and Gore patched up their tattered relationship after September 11.
Gore's decision to distance himself from his sponsor during the 2000 campaign
because of the Monica Lewinsky mess had created a rift. The tragedy brought about
reconciliation. Both men were overseas when the terrorists struck, Clinton in
Australia and Gore in Austria. After checking on their families and closest
friends, associates say, each had the same compulsion to talk to the other. It
took three days for them to hook up. Gore finally flew to Canada from Europe and
caught a commuter flight to Buffalo, where he rented a car and drove through the
night to Clinton's house in Chappaqua. He arrived at 3:30 a.m., and the two men
stayed up the rest of the night talking.
The rehabilitation of Clinton's battered public image will take
more than public good deeds and travels on the international lecture circuit. His
seedy personal failings, capped by his midnight pardon of financier-felon Marc
Rich, left behind a sour taste that his successor George W. Bush continues to
exploit. But Clinton, who is the most politically astute Democrat on the national
scene in decades and would have run for a third term if allowed by the
Constitution, is wielding political influence quietly from behind the scenes,
hoping to preserve and further his policy legacy.
Begala remembers that Clinton recruited him and James Carville to work as
strategists on his 1992 presidential campaign with an odd pitch. "He never talked
about the strategy," says Begala. "He talked about the ideas. He believed ideas
can carry you."
Clinton still believes that ideas carry a politician. In his public speeches
and in private conversations with potential presidential candidates and party
leaders, he promotes the same third-way philosophy that drove the Republican
right and Democratic left mad with frustration during his presidency. Six days
before Christmas, he dominated a two-hour powwow with former policy aides and
cabinet secretaries. A front-page story in The New York Times described it
as a strategy session to restore his political image. But the meeting, promoted
by Democratic Leadership Council founder and chief Al From, was less about the
battle-scarred Clinton image than about perpetuating his third-way approach to
Clintonism holds that the left-right dichotomy is a "false choice"; that
public policies can be mutually beneficial to business and labor, to the
environment and economic growth, to work and family. Critics call it
split-the-difference incrementalism. Split-the-difference, they say, puts
Democrats at a tactical disadvantage in horse-trading with a Republican White
House when they begin negotiations by compromising. Centrist lawmakers who follow
Clinton's example in seeking out a third position, so-called triangulation, are
confounding Democratic leaders' attempts to maintain party discipline on tax and
regulatory issues on Capitol Hill. And many think that the excessive emphasis on
the balanced budget has hamstrung Democrats. Congressman Barney Frank, a
Massachusetts liberal, says that Clinton made his biggest mistake with the 1997
Balanced Budget Act by damaging Medicare in the name of fiscal responsibility.
"The most fiscally responsible thing Clinton did was raise taxes on rich
people; it was also the most liberal thing he did," says Frank. "The most
fiscally irresponsible thing Bush did was lower taxes on rich people." Frank
believes that "Clinton could speak out very effectively on how the tax increases
did not hurt the economy."
But Clinton has held his tongue, and other liberals are not sorry. "It is
valuable for Democrats that Clinton and Gore have disappeared from the scene,"
says Robert Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America's Future. "It is
allowing new leaders to find their voices. The best role for Clinton is to recede
for a while and then be remembered fondly for the years of Clinton prosperity in
contrast to the Bush recession."
Clinton may not be visible, but he is definitely present. At
times he assumes the role of armchair general, urging others to carry out his
policy legacy. He consulted with Senate majority leader Tom Daschle before
Daschle delivered his major address in January--a speech that blamed the Bush tax
cut for making the recession worse but stopped short of calling for repeal.
Clinton touts his own experience as the model for others. He is distressed and
frustrated by the policy reversals made by the Bush White House and regrets the
missed opportunities from his own time in public office. Clinton speaks
frequently to many of the potential Democratic presidential candidates by
telephone. The communication goes both ways: He calls them and they call him.
"He's scratching an itch that just won't quit," says a top Democratic
political operative. Senator John Edwards of North Carolina is among those he
talks to often. Clinton viewed Edwards's Senate campaign as a model for third-way
politics and sees the handsome former trial attorney as an up-and-comer. Edwards
has created a political action committee called New American Optimists to finance
his national travels, which include three days in New Hampshire at the beginning
of February. His tour guide will be Nick Baldick, state director of Al Gore's
2000 campaign in New Hampshire.
Clinton has no immediate plans to raise money for any potential presidential
political action committee, according to spokeswoman Julia Payne. However, he
raised millions of dollars for the Democratic Party last year, and this year he's
helping many Democrats retire debt and build campaign accounts. He will be the
featured draw at upcoming fundraisers for Senators Maria Cantwell of Washington
and Barbara Boxer of California and for California Governor Gray Davis. One
political adviser says that Clinton is reluctant to take sides in Democratic
primaries; however, he is helping to raise campaign money for Rahm Emanuel, his
former White House aide and a veteran of the 1992 Clinton campaign, who is
running for Congress in Chicago.
Few had any stomach for partisanship right after 9-11. But with election
season beginning again, Clinton and Gore are expected to step up their political
activity. For now, the clarity of a single Democratic voice has been replaced by
the cacophony of a congressional party. "We don't have the White House, where you
have a single spokesperson," says Ranit Schmelzer, communications director for
Tom Daschle, who is trying to speak for his party. "It is always more challenging
to get your point of view across when you don't have the White House."
Republicans say that they miss their favorite whipping boy. "The more Clinton
is out there and visible, the better off we would be," says Republican political
consultant Ed Gillespie.
Those still close to Clinton say that he had essentially completed the
emotional transition from president to former president by last summer. Clinton
is unusually young for an ex-president: only 55 years old, six weeks younger than
George W. Bush. And prominent Democratic strategists predict that he will be
back. "Bill Clinton will be a powerful, visible, influential presence in the
Democratic Party and an effective campaigner for Democrats far into the future,"
says Democratic political consultant Robert Shrum. "Anybody who dismisses Bill
Clinton's presence or power in the American political scene is making a big
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