But Will It Hurt Al?
On A Clutch Of Issues, Clinton Must Choose Between Making History And Smoothing The Way For Gore
By Karen Tumulty
TIME, April 28 -- It's bad enough that raising campaign money for Bill Clinton has tarnished Al Gore's image as a saint. Now the question is, Will shouldering the President's agenda make him a political martyr?
For four years, the Vice President has been shown at his finest when putting himself in the line of fire for his President--whether it was breaking a tie vote in Congress to rescue Clinton's economic program in 1993, or demolishing Ross Perot in a TV duel to save the North American Free Trade Agreement. But now Clinton is looking toward a spot in the history books, and Gore toward one at the top of the Democratic ticket in 2000. To bolster his legacy, Clinton must make choices that could infuriate the most loyal and active Democrats, the ones whose votes Gore will need to tie up a nomination that no longer looks quite so inevitable as it once did.
First among Clinton's goals: to balance the budget. But with Republicans controlling Congress, any deal must come at least partly on their terms. Clinton this month offered to curb anticipated Medicare spending by an additional $18 billion, moving well toward the g.o.p. position in last year's showdown. For congressional Democrats, this amounted to an act of betrayal. Come 2000, and a Democratic challenger like, say, House minority leader Dick Gephardt might well recycle the devastating Medicare scare ads of 1996, this time aimed at the Vice President.
And it will be all the worse for Gore if the ultimate budget deal involves fiddling with the Consumer Price Index, an option Clinton took off the table under sharp criticism from Gephardt. The worthy policy--cutting the government's official inflation measure--would leave candidate Gore with a lot of explaining to do to the elderly facing smaller Social Security increases.
Workers on Capitol Hill barely had time to dismantle the scaffolding for Clinton's second Inauguration before the politics of the next presidential election began getting in the way of business in Congress. With Gephardt staking out positions to the left of Gore on a range of issues, Republicans complain they are suddenly finding Clinton far less accommodating than they had hoped. Even Democrats agree. Not only is the White House gauging g.o.p. reaction to each proposal, says Democratic Senator John Breaux of Louisiana, "they also now have to worry about how much of a real political fight it creates within our own party as presidential politics become part of the equation."
Gore rejects the idea that Clinton is holding back on his own priorities out of concern for his political heir. "I see the theory, but I don't see the facts," Gore told TIME last week. "It's just not a real dynamic. This President has been ultrasensitive to every constituency important to him for the last five years, since he got the nomination and since he's been President. It's just silly to project this idea that all of a sudden he's highly responsive to Democratic constituencies."
Nonetheless, Gore's political predicament is being invoked with increasing frequency in debates inside the White House, which is why some aides detect a new hesitancy in areas where Clinton has long been firm. Until now, for instance, it is difficult to think of an issue on which Clinton has been more consistent than trade. His campaigns to open markets through nafta and the global-trading arrangement known as gatt rank as two of his chief foreign-policy accomplishments.
But to make further gains, Clinton needs more negotiating authority from Congress, and that means taking on two of the crucial Democratic blocs that Gore will need: organized labor and environmental groups. Such heavyweights as Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright are urging Clinton to press ahead. But with Gephardt already stoking the opposition, Gore and others are urging caution, arguing that the President can't afford to alienate Democrats when he needs them on the budget. So far, Clinton seems to be siding with the go-slow camp, which, the most ardent free-traders fear, could sink any chance of striking a deal with Congress.
The Administration is also agonizing over how to respond to Texas Governor George W. Bush's request to be permitted to privatize the state's welfare system. Some of the most influential players in the White House, including domestic- policy adviser Bruce Reed, are urging Clinton to grant a waiver that could make way for an important new approach to welfare. But Gore could suffer if the move antagonizes the powerful government-workers union.
Gore's courtship of labor has already backfired on his boss. Last week G.O.P. Senators threw up new roadblocks to the nomination of Alexis Herman as Labor Secretary to punish the Administration for saying it would weigh the friendliness of companies toward unions in awarding federal contracts. It was Gore who made the case for this approach in a speech last Monday to the afl-cio's building and construction unions. There was little new in his announcement, but it was strident enough to bring a standing ovation from the unionists and a fit of pique from the Republicans.
In other areas where crucial voting (and fund-raising) groups are involved, though, Gore seems to be running a bit in front of his President. Many pundits--and in private, a fair number of U.S. officials--say Benjamin Netanyahu's government deserves most of the blame for the current Middle East impasse. Pressure to take a tougher line with Israel rose further after Clinton's disappointing meeting with Netanyahu at the White House this month. But the Israeli Prime Minister could hardly have felt much inclination to move after listening a day earlier to Gore's performance before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Saying the stewardship of peace rested with "my friend Bibi Netanyahu," Gore declared, "We will never permit anyone to drive a wedge between the United States and Israel." (This was a bit of pandering Gore could have dispensed with: a week later, Netanyahu is facing a possible indictment, and peacemaking is on hold.)
Though Gore and Clinton's partnership may have grown more difficult, don't look for either one to seek any distance. Both realize that neither can have what he really wants without the other. The first test of the President's legacy will be whether the country embraces his heir. And nothing would make Gore more unassailable as a candidate than a successful Clinton presidency. Says Rubin: "If you build a strong record of accomplishment and balance the budget, then anyone who might run against Gore is going to face very formidable obstacles." To be martyred for the sake of the history books hardly matters at all, by that logic. Three years is time enough for a political resurrection.
--With reporting by James Carney and Adam Zagorin/Washington
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