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Clinton Can Be a Plus

Campaign Road Map. A continuing series of articles analyzing the 2000 presidential strategies.

March 19, 2000|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984.

WASHINGTON — The George W. Bush camp has been salivating over the chance to hang President Bill Clinton around Vice President Al Gore's neck. The Austin wizards are convinced the president's character problem and national "Clinton fatigue" will hurt Gore in November. This reminds me of that story about a young man selfishly praying to God to make him into a "stud." God did as the boy asked. So the boy ended up as a 2x4 in a condominium in New Mexico. Moral: Be careful what you wish for.

In 1988, the Democrats assumed that President Ronald Reagan, weakened by the Iran-Contra scandal, would hurt the presidential candidacy of Vice President George Bush. Didn't happen then, won't happen now.

In fact, Clinton's job approval is several notches higher than Reagan's was at this point in his term. At the height of his impeachment trial, Clinton's job rating reached 69%, and never dropped below 56%. By contrast, Reagan's plummeted from 63%, just before the Iran-contra scandal broke, to 40% in February 1987. Though the economy was sound under Reagan in '88, it pales in comparison with Clinton's robust economy. The Bush people evidently believe none of this changes the fact that Clinton remains a liability, so the more he does for Gore, the better. A miscalculation of potentially major proportions!

Throughout his presidency, Republicans have underestimated Clinton's political skills. More important, Clinton knows what his liabilities are, and he will avoid them. What Clinton also knows, and what Republicans refuse to accept, are assets he brings to the Gore campaign.

Unlike Reagan, who distanced himself from Bush, Clinton has committed himself to ensuring a Gore victory. Why? Because it would essentially validate Clinton's policies of the past eight years and play a key role in rebuilding his legacy, Clinton's ultimate goal.

If you ever doubted the president's political prowess, look at Clinton's war of words with the National Rifle Assn. last week. The NRA, an albatross the GOP cannot shake off, actually suggested that Clinton liked some of those high-profile gun murders--including the incident at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., and the shooting by a 6-year-old in Michigan--because they gave him ammunition for tougher gun laws. How dumb! Even mainstream anti-Clinton voters dislike the NRA more than they dislike Clinton. This blunder allowed Clinton to engage the NRA while Gore pursued his middle-of-the-road repositioning strategy. In other words, Clinton could do Gore's dirty work for him, without forcing Gore into a premature battle with the NRA.

That's only the beginning. Clinton is off to India and Pakistan to confront both countries on their nuclear-weapons policies. His visit will underscore the importance of an experienced hand (read: Gore) in foreign policy, not an amateur (read: George W.). Expect to see White House aides reminding reporters that just a few months ago, Little George was defending the military dictatorship that overthrew Pakistan's democratic government, calling the move "stabilizing." An amateurish and dangerous assessment of a complex situation.

Just wait until Clinton and surrogates like former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin start on Little George's huge tax cut and the threat it poses to the economy. Even House Republicans refused to support Bush's tax plan last week. Why? Because, they'll explain, it is dangerous and amateurish.

And then there's the work Clinton can do in solidifying the Democratic base of blacks, women, environmentalists and unions. With these groups, Clinton is still king. He's also in a position to pander all he wants. Gore's pandering to those same groups in the primaries came perilously close to providing ammo for the GOP to attack him as just another liberal. Clinton will finesse these groups better than Gore anyway, which allows Gore to pursue his own version of a "triangulation" strategy.

Count on Clinton, as well, to attack the GOP's right-wing base for advocating everything from opposing reasonable gun control (the NRA) to supporting intolerant religious groups (the Christian Coalition), to denying a woman the right to choose. And then there are the extremists like Pat Robertson and the Bob Jones University crowd who don't limit themselves to excluding one group, but dislike Catholics, blacks and Jews. Question: Will Bush defend these right-wingers? Does he have a choice?

Clinton is not the Achilles' heel the Austin wizards think he is. In fact, he can do some heavy lifting for Gore. The question is: Who is going to do heavy lifting for Bush? The NRA? Robertson? The Bob Jones University Alumni Assn.? Who would you rather have on your side? *

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