Jewish World Review Nov. 13, 2002/ 8 Kislev 5763

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Consumer Reports

Is McAuliffe
watching his back?


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | It won't happen next week, but DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe will soon be the latest in a long line-one that stretches from Harlem to W. 57th St.-of Bill Clinton loyalists who's forced to drink a tumbler of political hemlock by the thrill-seeking ex-president. Not that McAuliffe, whose immense value as a fundraiser will be diminished by the McCain/New York Times campaign ban on soft money, doesn't deserve the boot. His performance in this fall's midterm races proved that as a political strategist the man is a bush-league amateur.

How stoned must've McAuliffe been the Sunday before the election to tell NBC's Tim Russert that Jeb Bush would be defeated in Florida, despite any number of polls that showed the incumbent Governor was poised for a comfortable victory over the free-falling Bill McBride? (Leafing through back issues of The New Republic, it lifted the spirits to see the cover of its Sept. 30 issue. With an illustration of McBride front and center, the headline read "This Election's Most Important Democrat." That's debatable, but the result certainly didn't turn out the way writer Jason Zengerle-or editor Peter Beinart, a diehard donkey-had hoped for.)

Russert asked: "[Jeb Bush] is going to lose, guaranteed?" McAuliffe responded: "Yep. That is why the President was down there yesterday for his 13th visit. People in Florida are energized. They've already started the early voting. And if you look at Broward and Dade Counties, there are lines already, huge lines, people-record vote coming out in Florida... We are going to win in Florida, which is going to set us up, Tim, very nicely for 2004." At a press conference on Nov. 6, McAuliffe offered this lame silver lining: "I know I cost the Bush family a little money," in defending Florida.

McAuliffe and friends

What kind of man is it who could blame the infamous Paul Wellstone memorial/ DNC pep rally on the late senator's surviving children? Sure, Mark Wellstone was overtly partisan at the gathering, but considering that he'd just lost his parents and sister days earlier, the grief-stricken son could've read from Stalin's journals, stark naked, and anyone with a heart would've understood.

How dimwitted was McAuliffe to spin last week's results as a "good night" for Democrats? Aside from losing the Senate, more seats in the House and falling far short of expected gubernatorial gains, McAuliffe claimed, "Basically [we're in] the same place we were after the 2000 election... Not much has changed."

Say what? It could be temporary, but currently George W. Bush, with the twin victories on Nov. 5 and then in the United Nations, is incalculably stronger politically than two years ago. In addition, the myopic McAuliffe praised outgoing Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening for his outstanding leadership in the elections, saying that he'd be happy to have the man "by my side anytime I'm in a foxhole." This is the same Glendening who slammed his lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, for running one of the worst campaigns in America. I don't particularly care for Townsend, and believe that Republican Bob Ehrlich will emerge as a fine governor (and perhaps national leader), but it was Glendening's unpopularity that at least contributed to the Democratic loss.

But the chairman's hubris aside, there's no way that Bill Clinton will allow him to retain a powerful position in the Democratic Party-not when Hillary's future is at stake. That's the Clinton style: wring a friend dry until he or she is no longer of use. In fact, perhaps the enduring image of this campaign is Clinton laughing uproariously with Walter Mondale at the Wellstone mini-convention. As Chris Caldwell wrote in the Nov. 11 Weekly Standard: "Former President Clinton appeared on the Jumbo-Tron yuk-yukking and giving thumbs-up signs, looking happier than he had since...well, since Ron Brown's funeral."

CLINTON'S LOST HIS TOUCH

Hardly anyone realized beforehand the extent of the GOP momentum-the party learned from 2000 that it ought to invest some money in an Election Day get-out-the-vote ground operation-but there was a strong hint on Monday night. Clinton appeared in Harlem in a wake/rally for doomed gubernatorial candidate Carl McCall rather than in say, St. Louis, where his inexplicable popularity with blacks might've helped Sen. Jean Carnahan. Similarly, 24 hours in Georgia could've possibly helped both Sen. Max Cleland and Gov. Roy Barnes withstand the Republican onslaught-engineered by the savvy Ralph Reed-that surely Clinton's pollsters told him was apparent.

Instead, Clinton gave up and watched most of the candidates he stumped for go down in defeat. Erskine Bowles in North Carolina, Townsend in Maryland, Shannon O'Brien in Massachusetts, McBride in Florida, Ron Kirk in Texas, Bill Curry in Connecticut and Jimmie Lou Fisher in Arkansas. Clinton's reputation as this generation's greatest pure politician, acknowledged by this columnist, took a licking last Tuesday.

Yes, he slithered out of trouble in 1992, when a compliant media didn't dig deep enough into his past to expose the man as a narcissistic fraud; and was lucky enough to escape conviction in the Senate after being impeached, mostly because of a robust economy.

Newt

But Clinton's political skills should be reconsidered. Who has he helped beside himself? Unlike President Bush this year, he was poison on the campaign trail in 1994-his first midterm after being elected-leading to the historic GOP takeover of Congress. And he was lucky enough that Newt Gingrich, after masterminding the victory, suddenly thought he was prime minister and then was putty in Clinton's hands. In '98, he stayed out of sight, with candidates fearing Monica's shadow behind him; and in 2000, a bitter Al Gore shut him out of his presidential campaign.

It'll be fascinating to see whether Democratic presidential contenders will seek Clinton's counsel for the 2004 primaries. My bet is no, for a couple of reasons. One, he clearly doesn't have the juice of a now long-ago era. More importantly, the GOP's takeover of the Senate changes, perhaps dramatically, Hillary Clinton's timetable for her own White House bid. Until recently, it was assumed she'd bide her time until 2008, make some more noise in the Senate and take her chances that John Kerry, John Edwards or Gore would lose against Bush. But with the political landscape completely altered, Hillary has choices to make. And quickly.

I don't think it's likely, but say Bush can't get the economy humming next year or severely botches an international crisis, a la Jimmy Carter in 1980. He's then red meat for a Democratic challenger, who, if victorious, would put Hillary out of the running until 2012, which even by her calculated timetable is too long to wait. It also gives her me-myself-and-I husband that much more time to cause embarrassment.

Clinton apologist Jonathan Alter, writing on Newsweek's website on Nov. 6, chastised his buddy for a lackluster performance. He said: "By campaigning so vigorously, Clinton no doubt alienated some independents, who, in a straight up comparison between the former president and the current one, went for Bush. All of this needs to be said with some sense of humility. I, for one, completely miscalled this election. I thought the Democrats would close the gap and keep the Senate, as the out party has historically. But politics is a rough business, and history's verdict-now being rendered on this election-will always be harsh."

Give Alter this much credit: at least he didn't write, "As everyone knows, politics ain't beanbag."

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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press (www.nypress.com). Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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© 2002, Russ Smith