We're surprised more ink isn't being spilled on the latest step into the spotlight by Bill Clinton.

If there were another report about Clinton consorting with some babe or failing to account for some White House furniture or arguing with Hillary or keeping Cristophe's customers waiting while he gets a haircut, you can be sure the punditocracy would be all over it.

But since he was giving a serious talk about the future of the Democratic Party, only the beat reporters and hard-core junkies have taken note.

It was striking watching the ex-prez on the tube. Whatever one thinks of the slick and self-destructive tendencies that led to his impeachment, here was a man who was relaxed and confident as he offered advice on how his party can dig itself out of a huge hole.

The contrast to the cautious talking points of some of the wannabes who lust for his old job couldn't have been greater.

Clinton did what he always does, spinning torrents of words into floods of sentences that drew in his audience and made them feel like part of his message. The master of threading the rhetorical needle did it again, scolding Democrats for forfeiting the national security issue -- an implicit rebuke to the Hill leadership -- while saying the party shouldn't react to the election debacle by becoming more liberal.

He also seemed to echo Gore's recent lament about the media, saying the Republicans "have an increasingly right-wing and bellicose conservative press" while "we have an increasingly docile establishment press." (Time to defend yourselves, establishment types.)

Democratic loyalists cling to the notion that a majority of Americans agree with their positions (on education, health care, prescription drugs, fill in the blank). Clintonism, after all, did win two presidential elections and, in its modified Gore form, captured the popular vote in a third.

But can Clintonism thrive without Clinton? Can Gore or Kerry or Edwards or Gephardt or Dean make the progressive case against a popular president who seems as adept at stealing their issues as Bubba was in picking Republican pockets? Do they just need time to find their voice? Or has the party's moment passed?

Not surprisingly, former Bush speechwriter David Frum slams his old boss's predecessor in National Review:

"If you were a Democrat, wouldn't you just want to shake Clinton? Here's what I'd be saying: 'Hey Bill: You decided not to retaliate forcefully when Saddam Hussein tried to murder your predecessor, our 41st president. You decided that the right way to stop North Korea from getting a nuclear bomb was to lavish them with aid -- and then you decided to ignore the evidence that they were cheating. You issued the rules that crippled our intelligence agencies.

"'You decided that your top priority for the military was to social engineering, not fighting. You refused to take custody of bin Laden when he was offered up to you. You decided to fight terrorism by, as President Bush 43 so vividly put it, by firing million-dollar missiles at $10 empty tents and hitting a camel in the butt. And now you tell us that we lost the Congress because we're seen as soft on national security. Ooooooooooooh.' It does make you wonder why there isn't a word for chutzpah in Arkansan."

But even Frum adds:

"On the other hand: Clinton is right of course. Whatever else you say about the Big He, he is a shrewd student of American politics -- much shrewder than his would-be successor John F. Kerry, who hopes to win the presidency in 2004 on the issue of faster train connections between New York and Boston. National security is the issue, and it is amazing that none of the likely Democratic candidates in 2004 except Joe Lieberman have anything worthwhile to say about it."


We're not sure whether Maureen Dowd liked the speech or not:

"Democrats have been turned into eunuchs by the warlike Bushies. Some are skittering left. Some are skittering right. Most are just cowering behind the barn hiding from Sheriff Bush and his gimlet-eyed, sharp-shootin' sidekick, Karl Rove.

"Mr. Clinton, who was always adept at purloining anything he fancied from Republicans, told Democrats flatly that they could not 'wilt' on national security or whine about their identity crisis. (Though, being Bill Clinton, he laced his speech with whining about how his presidency was underappreciated. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. Bill Clinton, he didn't mention that his preoccupation with the Monica threat to his future might have diluted his focus on the Qaeda threat to our future.)"


Hotline wonders whether the '04 types will openly embrace Clinton:

"The debate over what role Bill Clinton should play in the Democratic Party will not go away until the party elects a president not named Clinton. Until then, there will always be folks on both sides of the argument on whether Clinton helps or hurts. GOPers obviously believe Clinton hurts Dems with swing voters, which is why he's still a favorite target. But Dems as a whole still haven't figured out how to respond to that criticism.

"The phrase 'tail between their legs' comes to mind when a Dem in a swing state is faced with the Clinton conundrum. But in reality there's no easy answer on Clinton. Expect major second guessing in Louisiana on a Clinton appearance if Landrieu loses Saturday -- Clinton's very political DLC speech shows he still believes he matters and why shouldn't he feel that way; the Clinton name is still the most productive Dem fundraising tool. And it seems likely that every Dem '04 wannabe will face the same choice as Al Gore in '00 and Dem midterm candidates: Do you tie yourself to Clinton or distance yourself?"

One of the undeclared '04 candidates has made his choice, according to the Washington Times:

"Bill Clinton failed to lead the Democratic Party during last month's midterm elections, the Rev. Al Sharpton said yesterday, and the former president is now compounding the party's poor showing by blaming others.

"'For him to say that the Democrats failed to bring out a message is wrong,' Mr. Sharpton said in an interview with The Washington Times. 'He was the messenger, he was the one out there and helped run the campaign, him and [Democratic National Committee Chairman] Terry McAuliffe. So how can he give an objective opinion with his subjective involvement?'"

Forget swing voters, says Reverend Al: "Mr. Sharpton said if he decides to run for president, he will be able to draw heavily on the votes of the working class and minorities, 'all of whom did not turn out' in November's elections."


Not enough of them turned out when he ran for mayor or Senate in New York, either.

ABC's Note says the former president struck a nerve:

"The heart of Clinton's message to his party was that they have to be tougher, but they also have to be sunnier and more optimistic, and they have to be FOR something.

"Mr. Clinton also made it clear that Democrats have to simultaneously establish their national security bona fides AND go on the offensive on the issue, criticizing the Bush administration in particular, he suggested, on the allocation of homeland security resources.

"This year, in the public's eye, Democrats went from being for a homeland security department to opposing it. They picked a fight over union workers to assuage and motivate their base, without countering with proposals for how to build a better mousetrap.

"In his speech, Clinton also took his usual liberties with the total truth, claiming, for instance, that most experts thought the health care plan he offered as President was not complicated or too much 'big government.' (We somehow don't remember that). .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"On the Clinton scale, Kerry gets high marks for his economic speech in Cleveland in that he came out FOR something -- a series of tax cuts to pit against the GOP's proposals. And also on the Clinton scale, Kerry's biggest potential problem is in trying to be sunny and optimistic, which sorta conflicts with his serious demeanor."


Here's Ron Brownstein's take on Kerry in the Los Angeles Times:

"Likely Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry offered an economic plan Tuesday that urges a sweeping retrenchment of President Bush's $1.35-trillion, 10-year tax cut, but also relies heavily on new short-term tax breaks to stimulate the economy.

"The plan by Kerry, who last month won a fourth Senate term in Massachusetts, seemed designed to both sharpen his differences with Bush and position him in the center of the emerging Democratic field.

"Rather than emphasizing new spending, Kerry proposed to pump additional purchasing power into the economy by cutting taxes on businesses that create jobs and by temporarily eliminating the Social Security tax on the first $10,000 in workers' earnings. He also promised as president to 'take a hard look' at waste in the federal budget.

"But he denounced the further cuts in income tax rates due in 2004 under the Bush tax plan -- reductions the administration may try to accelerate next year as part of its stimulus package."


And what about Clinton's vice president? The New York Post's Deborah Orin offers this speculation:

"Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but the December buzz among Dems is starting to be that maybe, just maybe, Al Gore will bow out of the 2004 presidential race and deprive Republicans of their dream race -- a Bush-Gore rematch.

"'People who talk to Gore say that one day he implies he's very likely to run and then another day he all but says he's out of it,' recounts a senior Democratic strategist. Adds a 2000 Gore backer: 'If he's on a book tour and people aren't even buying his book, maybe it tells him something. But is he able to look himself in the mirror and admit that?'"


If you're a small-state governor without foreign-policy credentials, you head overseas, as this wire report in the Burlington Free Press demonstrates:

"Peace is not possible in the Mideast while Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat remains in power, Gov. Howard Dean said Tuesday following a meeting with the Israeli prime minister.

"'I do not think that as long as Yasser Arafat is president there will be peace,' said Dean in a telephone interview from Tel Aviv.

"'I am convinced there are Palestinians who want to do the right thing, who believe peace can be achieved, who believe in the Palestinian state, as I do,' he said. 'My assessment also is that terrorism is an enormous problem here and no peace is going to be made as long as the terrorism is going on.'

"Dean met in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as well as with a representative of the Palestinians and with Martin Indyk, who was a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, and Dennis Ross, who was President Clinton's top Mideast envoy."


Let's move on to campaign finance. It was inevitable that McCain-Feingold would end up in court, and yesterday it did:

"A special appeals court heard arguments in an unusual all-day session today over whether the new campaign finance law limiting political donations was a boon to democracy by discouraging corruption or whether it violated the Constitution's guarantee of free speech," says the New York Times.

"Roger M. Witten, representing Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold, the law's principal sponsors, told the three-judge panel that the legislation was designed to fix 'a thoroughly broken system brought to its knees by massive cheating and exploitation of the soft-money loophole.' He said there was no dispute that the so-called soft money donations -- unlimited contributions to political parties outlawed by the McCain-Feingold law -- were used by corporations, unions and wealthy donors to buy access to lawmakers.

"To support his argument, Mr. Witten cited several affidavits and exhibits his side had submitted in which present and former officeholders told how lobbyists would remind them of their companies' contributions as they pressed an argument.

"But Bobby Burchfield, representing the Republican National Committee in challenging the law, told the three-judge appeals panel that the limits imposed by the McCain-Feingold law amounted to 'as pure a speech ban as you will ever see.'"


In media news, if you were wondering how the New York Times can justify killing two sports columns on the flap over Augusta National's ban on women, check out our report here.


In the Weekly Standard, Katherine Mangu-Ward says Republican pork is less important than Democratic swine:

"Democrats are up in arms about the 'pork' in the Homeland Security bill that President Bush signed last week. But what they are most upset about isn't really pork at all. The amendments they are complaining about don't dispense cash or paid positions. Instead, they protect vaccine makers, airport screeners, and others from potential lawsuits. In other words, Democrats aren't trying to protect taxpayers' wallets; they're looking after their own biggest campaign contributors--trial lawyers.

"Lawyers and law firms were the biggest givers of any industry in the 2002 election cycle. They gave more than $62 million to various campaigns, and 72 percent of that money went to Democrats. The Association of Trial Lawyers of America is the biggest individual donor within this category, and a whopping 88 percent of its donations during 2002 went to Democrats, netting the party $2,167,561 from trial lawyers alone. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Of course, even this massive infusion of cash couldn't banish the Democrats' fear of being labeled 'anti-homeland security.' So, as a last-ditch effort, Senate Democrats offered an alternative bill, 'stripped of pork,' as a gesture of goodwill to their contributors. The measure was defeated, 52-47.

"The Homeland Security bill as enacted includes protection against lawsuits for airport security companies and makers of screening equipment. Specifically, it limits their liability for any negligence they may have committed on September 11 by permitting hijackers to take box cutters aboard planes. Several families of 9/11 victims have been planning suits that could set a dangerous precedent."


The right to sue is a dangerous precedent? Shouldn't the courts decide that?

American Prowler's George Neumayr takes aim at John DiIulio:

"Nothing pleases liberal journalists more than the inevitable defection of an 'insider' from a conservative administration. Remember David Stockman? After running Ronald Reagan's economic policies down in an interview with Atlantic Monthly, he became the liberals' battering ram against Reaganomics.

"This year's David Stockman award goes to John DiIulio, the former head of George Bush's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. His interview with Esquire magazine gives liberals a handy weapon against George Bush's 'compassionate conservatism.' We can now expect to hear the Eleanor Clifts of the press begin their attacks, 'As John DiIulio says --'

"But how revealing are his remarks? A Democrat who voted for Al Gore, DiIulio essentially criticizes the Bush administration for not adopting his centrist Democratic mindset. He is upset that the Bush White House doesn't operate like the Brookings Institution.

"His letter to Esquire reporter Ron Suskind isn't very persuasive. He at once criticizes the Bush administration for being too political -- 'the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis' -- and then criticizes it for not being more political. He complains that it didn't work with 'centrist Senate Democrats' on the faith-based initiatives bill, and that Bush staffers pushed 'policy proposals as far right as possible' and 'winked at the most far-right House Republicans.'

"So, according to DiIulio, these 'Mayberry Machiavellis' didn't compromise enough. One might think that phrase better fits the Clinton administration. But DiIulio waxes nostalgic about the Clinton administration. Clinton, he says, was a 'leader with a genuine interest in the policy process who encouraged information-rich decision-making.' He was the 'policy-wonk-in-chief.' His staff 'teemed with knowledgeable people interested in making government work.'

"For DiIulio, though he doesn't state it, thinking within Big-Government assumptions is 'policy,' while thinking outside those assumptions is mere ideology. Hence Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan and George Bush can never be policy wonks because they don't agree with Big-Government policy. But what is so disturbing about that?"