The campaign for the White House offers the sight of two hard-running candidates on the lam from Washington, the city they hope to take over. The Democrat is fleeing a Democratic president; the Republican, a Republican Congress.
Al Gore hopes to divorce Clinton the man, while retaining custody of Clinton the president's greatest legacy, a roaring economy. George W. Bush, who has won endorsements from 148 House Republicans, has made it plain their love is unrequited. Don't take me for one of them, he has signaled voters.
Al Gore has shaken the dust of Washington from his feet, turned in his shoes for boots and adopted brown suits--apparently unmindful of Margot Asquith's famous warning to her sister, "Only a scoundrel wears a brown suit." He ceremoniously opened his new headquarters in Nashville, far away from K Street, the stamping ground of the Washington hustlers and lobbyists who helped him spend some $6 million in the last six months.
Gore insists the campaign has been "just great," even though its net effect has been to make him the underdog and transform Bill Bradley, another wooden ex-senator, into a charismatic insurgent with a full war chest and an army of volunteers.
The move may have dislodged some of Gore's many mercenaries, but campaign chairman Tony Coelho, the former congressman and quintessential Washington insider, made the trip. Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), who well remembers Coelho's efforts to oust Moakley's idol, Speaker Tip O'Neill, expresses a widespread view: "Tony is a very talented fellow; of course you would want him on your side. But I would put him in the back room, not out front as my number one man."
Gore's real problem is not his wardrobe or K Street or Coelho or his hung-up speaking style. It is Bill Clinton, who is miffed at Gore's new remoteness and cannot resist taking the odd poke at his two-time running mate. Most recently, according to the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, Clinton told a confidant that "but for his father [a former senator], he [Gore] would have been a professor or something more solitary."
Comparable second-guessing also had been emanating from staffers at Gore's old K Street headquarters, some of whom fed the press a steady diet of stories featuring egos and intrigues. In Nashville, where Gore introduced new campaign manager Donna Brazile on Wednesday, that might not happen.
Brazile is a ball-of-fire organizer and galvanizer of black and female voters. She got fired from the Dukakis campaign in 1988 for an angry outburst to reporters on the campaign bus. Her offense, as she recalled a year later: "I called the vice president [Bush] an adulterer, a racist and a liar." But she lived to fight another day, helped other Democrats and causes. She proves that the cautious vice president will take a risk, and she brings him the commitment and wholeheartedness he urgently needs.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush did some notable heckling lately. He took pot shots at House Republicans, that strange tribe that is almost triumphantly out of touch with voters. They tried to impeach Clinton, in the face of an obdurate majority that wouldn't have it. They defied the polls on gun control after the massacre at Columbine High School. They passed a tax cut while the public was saying that rather than more money in its pocket, it wanted stability in Medicare and Social Security. Their most recent inspiration was to spread out payments of the Earned Income Tax Credit to the working poor. Last week, Bush observed quite sensibly that "they shouldn't balance their budget on the backs of the poor."
People familiar with the slash-and-burn rhetoric of Republican leaders--among them Bush's fellow Texans, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay--waited for the explosion. Marvelously, none occurred. Nor was there one when Bush again sniped at them for caring too much about money. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), himself a heretic on some issues, says that conservatives were "much more upset than they let on." But Rep. Christopher Cox, a Bush California co-chair, said the Republicans were far more incensed at the press for overplaying the story.
Do they feel that their golden boy is a trifle arrogant, acting like a standard-bearer a year in advance? No, they don't. Do they find him cavalier? No, says Cox: "Too many of them are in touch with him all the time."
The alpha and omega of what they think about W. is that he is a winner. For that they are willing to overlook "youthful" indiscretions up to the age of 40, a draft record similar to Dan Quayle's and unanswered questions about drug use.
Bush plainly expects them to understand that even if his bashing ends up hurting them in their own races next year, it is what he will have to do to win. He gave a clue about his attitude toward tough love tactics in an interview with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Speaking of occasional incivilities while acting as his father's White House bouncer, he said, "People shouldn't have taken that personally."