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The Gore Story

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Sunday, September 7 1997; Page C07

Poor Al Gore. He had spent his political life as the good and solid Mr. Clean too boring to be scandalous. All those jokes Gore would tell about his stiffness reflected his political shrewdness. Whenever President Clinton's rating on the scandal meter shot up, there was Gore, reminding voters that he was too clunky to be slick, too straight to be corrupt. His anthem for the past six years: It's hip to be square. For much of the administration's tenure, his ratings were higher than the president's.

The vice president was also loyal, and his loyalty has now shattered the image of painful earnestness, so painstakingly built. Clinton asked Gore to help. Gore was there, raising money at that Buddhist temple. He was there, making those calls to rich donors from his office.

Now, he seems even more threatened by the fund-raising mess than Clinton. If the Democratic National Committee funneled some of the money he raised to the wrong accounts, he may face an independent counsel's investigation. Such investigations seem to take forever, forever in this case meaning up to and perhaps including the presidential year 2000.

On the fund-raising matter, Gore's proud clunkiness did not serve him well. The man who had hoped to be associated with the slogan "reinventing government" is now forever chained to the phrase "no controlling legal authority," his mantra for the fact that no court ever ruled on the legality of what he did in the process of raising political money.

How people react to Gore's problem depends on where they stand on Gore. For Gore fans, this case is a tragedy. A fundamentally honest guy – no one would confuse Al Gore with Boss Tweed – responds to the political imperatives of the moment and to legal advice that says he is responding within the bounds of the muddy campaign finance statutes. Did he do anything so different from what Republicans did before him?

Gore's critics say his sanctimoniousness disguises a political ambition that does what political ambition demands. If Democrats played loose with the law in 1996, and if Gore went along, he deserves what he's getting – especially since there have been subtle changes in his story as more facts became public. If Al Gore were Newt Gingrich, this argument goes, the world would already be caving in on him.

No one knows which way this story will go. The two obvious facts are the tawdriness of the 1996 fund-raising and the weirdness of campaign finance laws that seem to allow certain kinds of big money fund-raising while prohibiting others. This is one of many reasons why the campaign laws needs to be reformed, tightened and clarified.

But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Gore is battered politically but not legally. What does this do to the campaign for the next Democratic nomination? The surprise: It could do the Democrats a world of good – and not just because they will be forced to clean up their fund-raising.

The Democrats are in a muddle over who they are. Clinton has been very successful in containing the Republicans and in establishing the Democrats as a good defensive party – they will defend what's left of the achievements of the New Deal and the parts of the Great Society (i.e., Medicare and Medicaid) that are still popular.

But if they're to play more than defense, Democrats need a big argument about the affirmative uses of government. Gore's current weakness makes that debate more likely. Already, Gore looks to be challenged by House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, Sen. Paul Wellstone, the liberal firebrand from Minnesota, and possibly Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.

The more open the nomination looks, the more likely former senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey is to run. Bradley could be especially useful to the debate. He has a moderate demeanor but asks radical questions about how the economy distributes its rewards and how the political system works (or doesn't).

Gore would prefer to have little challenge. Tough primaries often lead to defeat. But now that Gore has been tainted by the finance scandals, he will be forced to make his candidacy about something bigger than four more years of Clinton prosperity. The good news in this for the country is that the current torpor in the political debate will end – and that will be true in both parties.

All this assumes that Gore is right about what the controlling legal authority – her name is now Attorney General Janet Reno – has to say about his fund-raising and the need for a special counsel.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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