Clinton Connection Causes Quandary: Clinton-Administration Alumni Vying for Public Office Must Decide Whether the Smart Move Is to Embrace or to Run Away from Their Past Ties to the Former President. (Nation: Political Races)

By Nichols, Hans S. | Insight on the News, July 15, 2002 | Go to article overview

Clinton Connection Causes Quandary: Clinton-Administration Alumni Vying for Public Office Must Decide Whether the Smart Move Is to Embrace or to Run Away from Their Past Ties to the Former President. (Nation: Political Races)


Nichols, Hans S., Insight on the News


They're baaack! It's not surprising that alumni of the Clinton administration are jousting to return to public life, pining for the power and prestige they once enjoyed in the White House. What is surprising--and of growing interest to the 2004 Democratic presidential hopefuls--is how the Clinton alumni are talking about their former boss and his contested legacy. Or, in some cases, not talking about it.

"Is a Clinton connection a political plus or the mark of Cain?" wondered New York Times columnist William Safire recently. No less than six Clinton alumni are on the ballot in 2002 races for House, Senate and governors' seats. Former U.S. attorney general Janet Reno is running for governor in Florida, former energy secretary and U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson is the Democratic candidate for governor in New Mexico, former housing and urban development secretary Andrew Cuomo is seeking the gubernatorial nomination in New York and former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich is trying to get the Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts. Clinton's loyal chief of staff during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Erskine Bowles, is competing for the Senate seat from North Carolina to be left open by the retirement of Republican conservative Jesse Helms. And former presidential adviser Rahm Emmanuel is likely to win the congressional seat once held by convicted felon Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.).

The conundrum these Clinton alumni face is similar to Al Gore's quandary in 2000: Should they stand by their man or duck the connection? Like the ongoing debate about how Gore ran his campaign, the latest round of Georgetown parlor talk is, at its core, about the country's divided and sometimes contradictory opinions of Clinton--an impeached president who presided during a period of economic prosperity and enjoyed high approval ratings despite a personal life redolent with scandal. No matter how much empirical evidence is on the table, political operatives, pollsters and candidates can't seem to agree about how voters will react to the Clinton connection.

Clinton critics are quick to point out the many intelligence and security failures that occurred during his administration. They note the deep reductions in his defense budgets and his less than vigorous response to the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, along with the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. And while a distracted Clinton was busy plotting his impeachment defense, a focused al-Qaeda was plotting attacks on the U.S. mainland, the former president's critics charge.

In the national-security evaluation that followed Sept. 11, Clinton's stock plummeted. A recent Gallup poll found his approval rating had dropped lower than at any point during his second term and a full 20 points below his successor.

But polls can be deceiving. "This is one area where I don't even believe my own polls; he's more popular than any polls ever show," says John Zogby of the polling firm Zogby International, a sometime-Clinton pollster who often churned up numbers that made the Clintons hot with anger. "It's safe to say Bill Clinton is not a huge fan of mine," Zogby claims to INSIGHT, "so I say this as someone who's by no means a Clinton partisan, but I still believe that Clinton has enormous star power and that Democrats are foolish not to capitalize on it." Zogby thinks Clinton might be especially effective at getting out the black vote in Florida, for instance.

Political operatives in the field, both Democrat and Republican, aren't so sure how Clinton will play in Peoria. In North Carolina--a conservative state George W. Bush won by 13 points in 2000--Bowles is running from his Clinton past even though he's in a tough three-way Democratic primary where a Clinton connection could help him. Republican strategists note that in Bowles' TV ads he boasts of serving "a president" as chief of staff, but doesn't mention which president. …

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