Gore Has Tough Balancing Act
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 22, 1998; Page A09
In the halcyon days of "Bill and Al's Excellent Adventure," long before they were president and vice president, the two cruised the country in a bus, tossing footballs and grinning proudly as their bookend blonde wives shimmied to the strains of Fleetwood Mac.
Today the baby boomer buddies are 5,000 miles apart, hunkered with their families on long-planned beach vacations on separate coasts, their only connection the telephone line.
For Vice President Gore, it is a fortunate coincidence that he is so far removed from the sex and coverup firestorm engulfing President Clinton. But next week Gore returns to Washington to confront a situation that threatens to jeopardize his own career.
"These guys have been attached at the hip," said Charles O. Jones, a presidential scholar at the University of Wisconsin. "They've been a team and that's been a great advantage. But so often your advantages can become a disadvantage and that is certainly the case with vice presidents."
With the exception of Clinton himself, no politician in America has a greater stake in the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation than Gore. Until recently, the job of being Clinton's No. 2 had been a priceless asset for a man with presidential ambitions of his own, providing Gore publicity and fund-raising advantages as well as the prestige of being associated with a popular administration. Now the loyal vice president is attempting to adopt the role of political contortionist, supporting his friend and boss without condoning Clinton's behavior.
The morning after Clinton confessed on national television that he had an improper sexual relationship with the former intern, Gore emerged from a secluded Hawaiian vacation to declare that he was "proud" of Clinton and "honored to have him as a friend."
Several of Gore's top advisers acknowledge that they have received calls urging Gore to distance himself from the tainted president. But, using the exact same words to describe the vice president's predicament, they concluded: "He had no choice."
Perhaps more foreboding for Gore than a protracted battle over Clinton's misdeeds is a revived investigation of the vice president's fund-raising activities, which has already put a dent in his Boy Scout image. Last year he awkwardly explained his 1996 solicitation calls and a fund-raising appearance at a Buddhist temple by declaring that there was "no controlling legal authority." Attorney General Janet Reno is now considering appointing an independent counsel to investigate his calls.
"Does the public turn in 2000 to a clean new face? That's the question," said veteran Democratic lobbyist John Raffaelli. "Gore can wander through the minefield, but it will take a lot of work. He has to stay as far away from dealing with the defense of Clinton . . . and stick as close as he can to the issues and initiatives associated with the president."
For the man who six years ago sublimated his own presidential aspirations to accept the role of understudy, the question today is, What price loyalty?
"He's stuck with Clinton," said Bill Kristol, a Republican commentator who was Vice President Dan Quayle's chief of staff. "Gore has two options: Ride the roller coaster with Clinton or resign and denounce him."
No one expects Gore's family-man image to be tarnished by Clinton's personal scandal; in fact, the contrast may redound to his benefit.
"As much as I hate to admit this, it may be good for the vice president in places like Indiana," said Joe Andrew, the state Democratic chairman. "Everybody out here loves Tipper [Gore] and talks about their romance and family life."
But many Democrats worry that with the administration so preoccupied by the Lewinsky investigation, little will be accomplished substantively, and a stalled agenda and foreign economic woes could leave Gore with little to sell voters.
"If somehow this diminishes the president's ability to govern, that's the risk for Gore," said one of the vice president's closest confidants. "If the economy is not doing well and Democrats are seen as unable to get anything done, then that doesn't bode well for the race in 2000."
Another Gore ally fears the vice president may lose his most effective weapon on the campaign trail: Bill Clinton. "If the president's political capital is diminished come 2000, that obviously is a resource the vice president would have had in the campaign and now may not," said this West Coast strategist.
And although Gore's advisers proclaim confidence that he violated no campaign finance laws, a new investigation would cost valuable time and resources that might otherwise have been spent promoting him and his agenda. "It's certainly going to be a burden on his shoulders and the staff's shoulders," said Ginny Terzano, a former Gore spokeswoman.
As the Lewinsky scandal broke last January, it was Gore who offered the most spirited defense of the president. At a joint appearance in Illinois one day after Clinton's State of the Union address, Gore literally roared into the microphone exhorting the crowd to "join me in supporting him and standing by his side."
At the time, Gore said he believed Clinton's strenuous denials of having an affair with Lewinsky. Today, he knows better and while he remains one of the few Democrats to have offered unequivocal support for Clinton, it came in the form of two curt, carefully crafted statements. And several Gore allies said it is unlikely the vice president will repeat the Illinois performance.
"It's rough on a personal level," said Roy Neel, Gore's former chief of staff. "If you have a good friend hurting, you hurt too. It's doubly frustrating when there is very little you can do about it except be there and show your support emotionally."
For now, the Gore strategy must be to support Clinton while also maintaining his own public persona by campaigning for Democratic candidates, using the formidable tools of the White House to reinforce his standing with key Democratic constituencies and garner favorable media attention.
"All along the White House plan was to start rolling Gore out more after the fall election," said one political adviser to the vice president. "By virtue of being in charge of the federal government we have the ability to make executive orders, issue announcements and hand out billions of dollars."
Last month, for example, Gore generated headlines with new federal rules on computer privacy, this strategist noted: "Pollsters say that is near the top of the [voters'] list; he got a great hit on a very substantive issue and will keep talking about that."
California technology entrepreneur Timothy Newell said Gore has already laid the policy groundwork with the influential high-tech community. "What remains for the next two years is the political work" of stroking those CEOs, Newell said.
But implicit in his remarks was a concern that Gore may face a cooler reception from less satisfied activists whose agenda items become mired in the scandal fallout. Among the issues that play to core Democrats but are virtually dead for this year: anti-smoking legislation, a race initiative and an overhaul of Social Security.
The Gore camp hopes to pin the blame on the GOP-led Congress. "Congress will either fall in line and get important legislation passed or they won't," said Terzano. "Then voters will have to decide."
That may work for a few months, Jones said, but two years of Washington gridlock would be a millstone for Gore in 2000. "That's how Clinton got into office."
For Gore, the classic dilemma confronted by every vice president is acute, Jones said: "Gore can't argue everything good that happened I was in on and everything bad that happened I wasn't around."
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