The Torch's legacy

Posted: Oct 03, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, often called the most disliked member of the Senate with enemies on both sides of the aisle, characteristically showed up alone -- with nary an adviser -- for last Sunday night's critical meeting in Trenton. Out of character was his decision to fold his re-election campaign, perhaps giving the Democratic Party an incalculable gift: continued control of the Senate. Torricelli's unmatched fund-raising for his party and dependably partisan voting record did not endear him to the party during 20 years in Congress. He has jumped off the party bandwagon at crucial moments in what Democratic critics consider efforts to broaden his New Jersey base. Such criticism pales, however, at the outrage inside the party over his atrocious personal behavior and the way he has handled it. The Democratic Party's most astute strategists two months ago privately deemed Torricelli unelectable, even though he then led in the polls. This transformation of a safe Democratic seat into a probable defeat that might provide a Republican Senate majority could have been averted had Torricelli realized his untenable position and quickly left the race. Despite having instead waited past the deadline for getting off the ballot, Torricelli may yet save the Senate for his party. Torricelli's lachrymose pronouncement Monday certainly transformed Republican joy to gloom. A slim Democratic majority on the New Jersey Supreme Court and the difficulty of a federal court appeal is likely to override the law and remove Torricelli's name. Businessman Doug Forrester, the neophyte Republican candidate for the Senate, discouraged Republicans by reacting Monday night by reciting legal technicalities. Republicans in New Jersey see Forrester as an underdog against former Sen. Frank Lautenberg. For Torricelli to belatedly cause so much Republican havoc contrasts with his stormy two decades on Capitol Hill. He repeatedly antagonized House Democratic leaders, who blocked him as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. His 14 years in the House ended on a sour note when he was rebuked for leaking classified information. Torricelli proved no more amiable in the Senate, though his campaign chairmanship in 2000 produced an unexpected 50-50 party tie. He was barely on speaking terms with Lautenberg (who this week Torricelli tried to block as his successor), and alienated colleagues by bailing out on sensitive issues. He assailed Attorney General Janet Reno, backed away from campaign-finance reform, sided with businessmen pressing for major tax cuts and advocated an end to the 2000 long presidential recount before Al Gore was ready to call it quits. Still, thanks to his partisan rhetoric, he did not ingratiate himself with Republican colleagues. Supremely confident as a political manipulator, Torricelli's downfall was of his own making. He had run a disciplined Senate campaign in 1996 when (under the guidance of consultant Robert Shrum) he stayed out of his own television ads in a bitterly contested race. On his own in 2002, Torricelli nearly delivered a Senate seat to the Republicans. While Torricelli correctly predicted to colleagues in July that he would not be indicted for illegal gifts from David Chang, he was wrong about everything else. He underestimated a critical report from the Senate Ethics Committee, and appeared on his own disastrous television ad admitting wrongdoing but not law-breaking. His greatest blunder was fighting the release months ago of a federal prosecutor's report corroborating Chang. When it finally came out last week, the impact was disastrous. There is no sign party leaders realized the only possible way to save the New Jersey seat was for Torricelli to step aside in defiance of state law. Just two days before he quit, the party tried to give him a little exposure by letting him make the national reply to President Bush's weekly radio address. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was genuinely surprised by Torricelli's decision to withdraw and tried to change his mind. Several years ago, I attended a business conference in Florida addressed by Torricelli. He arrived in an expensive European convertible, dressed like a Riviera playboy with then-girlfriend Bianca Jagger on his arm. Trying to maintain that most non-senatorial style led to his downfall and would have been his legacy had he not launched the power play now underway in New Jersey.