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He Moves Out From the Shadows and Into the Light

August 18, 2000|TED VAN DYK | Ted Van Dyk has served in two Democratic administrations and been policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns

With Vice President Al Gore's formal nomination for president last night, and his selection last week of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman as his 2000 running mate, the Democratic Party may finally be coming out on the other side of what it later will see as its eight-year degradation by a president who polarized and lied to the country and who was guided by little more than his personal and political self-interest.

Leaving this legacy behind will open the way to a Democratic victory this fall.

The party and most of its elected leaders still are unable to recognize what the Clinton years have done to them. But perspective and distance will clarify President Clinton's tenure. The policy reversals, the sellouts of his congressional party, the refusals to embrace bipartisan solutions to the thorny Social Security and Medicare issues, the hopeless botching of the chance to enact comprehensive health care reform, the stinking campaign finance scandals and the casual and open-ended commitments of troops and tax dollars to dubious involvements in Haiti and the Balkans--all were offenses to the country and the Democratic Party far more serious than any casual sexual dalliance in the White House. It was never about governance. It was always about political expediency. And, in defending the president against impeachment and other charges, congressional Democrats themselves fell too easily into the same expediency.

We Democrats need to get it straight. The president's troubles were never the result of some right-wing conspiracy or vendetta by prosecutors. They were the result of his own conduct.

Sen. Al Gore, before he became President Clinton's vice president, was a measured, thoughtful and intellectually independent person. Most of all, he was a person of integrity. Yet, as I saw my old boss Hubert H. Humphrey change during four years as Lyndon B. Johnson's vice president, I saw Al Gore change during eight years as President Clinton's understudy. Surrounded by the hyper-political, manipulative culture of the Clinton presidency, Gore became, as Humphrey with Johnson, a cheerleader for actions and policies that he himself often would not have pursued.

Watching the vice president last week as he proudly presented Lieberman as his running mate, Gore seemed more open and liberated than at any time during this campaign year. Now that he has been nominated in his own right, his liberation can be complete.

There is no doubt that Gore and Lieberman are men with moral compasses. Their personal and family lives are beyond reproach. Their word is good. As senators, both often worked with colleagues across party lines to find solutions to public problems. Both were unafraid, when necessary, to face up to interest groups in their own party when they disagreed with them.

In the coming campaign, we can expect the two men to draw sharp differences with the Bush-Cheney ticket. The country needs and deserves that. But we need not see the confrontational campaign tactics we sometimes saw in the vice president's nominating contest against Bill Bradley. Those were Clinton tactics; they should not be Gore-Lieberman tactics. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, just as Gore and Lieberman, are honorable and public-spirited men. They should be treated as such in the upcoming campaign.

But Bush and Cheney have espoused policy positions on Social Security, taxes and spending, education and defense that would create a different kind of America than that which would be created by the Gore-Lieberman proposals. Thus it is a campaign, above all, on those issues, and not on personalities, that the country deserves and that Democrats can win.

Clinton is often given credit for a successful presidency. It is quite true that peace and prosperity have been prevalent during these years, just as they were prevalent, for instance, during the otherwise empty and scandal-ridden term of President Warren Harding. But given the gift of peace and prosperity, Gore and Lieberman have the chance to demonstrate that there is a large-minded, publicly moral Democratic Party that can put petty politics, name-calling and "spinning" aside and return to its historic role of high public leadership. We can again be true to ourselves, beginning now.

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