When Vice President Dan Quayle recently charged on national television that Bill Clinton had raised the tax burden for Arkansas residents, the Democratic candidate's economic machinery clicked instantly into gear.
Gene Sperling, a staff member in Clinton's campaign, got hold of tables put out by the U.S. Commerce Department in an effort to rebut the charge and faxed them to reporters within hours, "so we could show that the tax burden had actually gone down," he maintains.
It was just one skirmish in a bigger economic war, a critical political contest in which Clinton has relied heavily on a small cadre of behind-the-scenes advisers, including some whom he has known for many years. Increasingly, however, their key role is coming out into the open, perhaps even as a campaign issue.
"From Santa Monica to Cambridge, my opponents are cranking up their models--ready to test them on you," President Bush declared last week, in a scornful reference to Harvard political economist Robert B. Reich and Derek Shearer, who is a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
Who, in fact, are these people? Clinton's economic insiders are mostly successful men in their mid-40s who have been crossing paths since the 1960s. A few have been pals ever since they were Ivy League student leaders who opposed the Vietnam War. At least one now calls Wall Street home.
Together, they have attempted to come up with an economic strategy that would veer sharply from the Ronald Reagan-Bush years, yet still pass muster with skeptical voters and jittery financial markets. Critics, meanwhile, say Clinton is claiming more than he can accomplish.
In any case, the "FOB's"--friends of Bill, the joke goes--also have their differences. Behind the scenes, the insiders have differed on crucial elements on Clinton's economic agenda: how much tax relief to offer the middle class, how heavily to tax the rich, how much more to spend on education, training and the nation's infrastructure.
A couple of the aides, including Robert J. Shapiro, vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute, are champions of free enterprise and cutting the federal deficit. Others, such as Reich, have advised Clinton to place greater priority on new government programs to spur growth.
"Of course, there are differences in emphasis," says Roger C. Altman, an investment banker who worked in the Jimmy Carter Administration and became Clinton's friend when they were students at Georgetown University in Washington. "But if you want to know if we're having a slugfest, the answer is no."
In recent months, Clinton has invited a wide array of experts to visit him in Little Rock, Ark., and sought memos on various topics, in a bid to keep expanding his circle of experts on the economy.
A tiny fraction would include Robert E. Rubin, co-chairman of the Goldman, Sachs investment firm--and a key Democratic fund-raiser on Wall Street--Paula Stern, former chairwoman of the U.S. International Trade Commission, Robert M. Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics, Alan S. Blinder, a Business Week columnist, Berkeley economist Laura Tyson and many others.
But there is a more exclusive clique that has had access to the governor for years, through academic, policy and even social circles. In some cases, Hillary Clinton has been a bridge between her husband and his advisers. Often, the tie was forged across the ocean at Oxford University in the late 1960s when Clinton was a Rhodes scholar.
Shearer, for example, met Clinton at Oxford, where Clinton was rooming with Shearer's friend, Strobe Talbott (now of Time magazine, and married to Shearer's sister). Today, Shearer, 45, is director of the International and Public Affairs Center at Occidental College and a trusted adviser to the Arkansas governor.
He also has found himself pilloried in the media for extremely liberal notions that he now says he has abandoned, such as the view that the U.S. government should own substantial stakes in major industries. A recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, for example, suggested that Shearer was a socialist, a description that Shearer emphatically disputes.
"You know how they went after Hillary?" he says of Clinton's enemies. "They're just looking for anything."
Certainly, it has been a long, winding road for some of the aides, whose connections date back to the super-charged political atmosphere of the 1960s. Shearer, a Yale graduate--George Bush Jr. was his classmate--recalls the days when he, Reich (at Dartmouth) and another close Clinton aide, Ira C. Magaziner (at Brown), were student leaders who once signed a letter protesting the Vietnam War.
Shearer, a former planning commissioner in Santa Monica, whose wife, Ruth Yanatta Goldway, was mayor in the early 1980s, these days prefers to talk about the virtues of economic growth and entrepreneurship, favorite Clinton themes.
"We all bring our different histories and backgrounds to this," he says. "Clinton takes what he likes."