WASHINGTON -- Al Gore's strategists in Nashville, who have crafted plans to lay waste George W. Bush in the campaign's closing days, could not be more irritated by Bill Clinton's frustrated eleventh hour intrusion. But Democratic loyalists around the country have been pleading: Mr. President, please do intrude!
The party faithful are desperately unhappy with Vice President Gore's performance as their presidential candidate. While stipulating that he may yet be elected, Democrats are gloomy. Many confess a gut feeling that Gov. Bush will win, and they blame Gore. They see Bush as a better disciplined, more effective candidate, in a precise role reversal from early September when I reported panic sweeping through Republican ranks.
With no October surprise and neither candidate apt to blunder, Democrats worry about how to erase narrow deficits in battleground states. This is where the ambiguous presence of William Jefferson Clinton is trying to play a last role on the presidential campaign stage.
It is difficult to exaggerate Nashville's irritation over Clinton's "exit interview" in Esquire magazine in which he demands that congressional Republicans apologize for impeachment. The Gore high command is infuriated that the president, self-indulgent as ever, has put the spotlight on his own behavior that cannot help the Democratic candidate in this campaign (not mitigated by Clinton's claim that he really thought the magazine's December issue would not be published until after Nov. 7).
The Esquire episode confirms this assessment in Nashville: While positives from major Clinton campaigning clearly would not be large, its negatives would be unclear and potentially far-reaching. "The president coming in as savior," one high-ranking Gore adviser told me, "would introduce a wild card. But I'm afraid he can't help us." That judgment is confirmed by Gore polling and focus groups.
Nor do Gore strategists any longer believe in waving the bloody flag on abortion and gun control, issues that may cost more votes than they win. Gore's imitation of Harry Truman has flopped in an America where obsolete populist jargon does not play as well as it did 52 years ago.
What can help, the Gore team believes, is to hammer away at Bush's record as governor of Texas and his partial Social Security privatization. With that daring proposal, the Republican candidate early this year touched the third rail of American politics -- and survived. "Well, he's grabbed that rail," explained Democratic National Chairman Joe Andrew. "He just didn't realize that we hadn't switched on the electricity yet." The switch was turned because wedge issues had failed.
But Gore's late strategic thrust is mainly to belittle Bush as inexperienced and incompetent. Vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman was put on Sunday's talk shows to say "I don't think Gov. Bush is ready" to be president. Asked his opinion later by CNN's Jonathan Karl, Gore said that is Sen. Lieberman's view and "he has a right to express it." He added archly: "I personally do not want to pass judgment on my opponent's qualifications to be president because I'm biased."
After Bush's debate performance, that won't work in the opinion of the Republican camp -- and also of Democratic politicians who privately brand Gore as a failed candidate lacking in credibility and likability. They want Clinton arm in arm with Gore.
One prominent Democrat close to both the president and vice president would like Clinton to stand on the same platform with Gore and extol his contributions to deficit reduction, welfare reform and support of NAFTA against labor. The possibility of that New Democrat mode is just about zero.
So, the great tragedian in his final days on the presidential stage is a bit player, sparring with and losing to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay in a budget confrontation attracting little attention.
Last Saturday night in Washington, Clinton put on a tuxedo to address the non-partisan National Italian-American Foundation. He delivered a wholly inappropriate political speech, claiming credit for curing "a troubled economy, a divided society, a paralyzed political system" and expressed hope "we will make (election) decisions consistent with keeping this economy strong." Bill Clinton wished he were campaigning that night in Michigan or Pennsylvania, and so did a lot of Democrats.