Clinton's Presence Is Felt on Campaign Trail

Times Staff Writer

Call it Clinton nostalgia.

Even before his debut Sunday night as a quick-hit commentator on "60 Minutes," the former president has been popping up regularly on the campaign trail. Not in person, but rather as a staple in the speeches of Democrats hoping to follow his footprints into the White House.

With the country jittery over the possibility of war, the stock market slumping and the economy seemingly stuck in idle, Democrats are convinced the Clinton era is looking better by the day. And they have not shied from boasting about the jobs created, the budgets balanced or the heights that Wall Street hit during the 1990s -- even if former Vice President Al Gore once seemed reluctant to do so.

Launching his presidential bid last month, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri began with a paean to "the Clinton-Gore economic plan," crediting its passage for "the single longest economic expansion in history." At a recent three-day gathering of Democratic Party leaders, virtually every speaker -- including seven presidential hopefuls -- paid homage to Clinton and his term in office. Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois praised his record of job growth and budget surpluses. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut cited "falling crime rates, rising homeownership and millions moving from welfare to work." Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina fairly taunted the Bush administration by asking voters -- or at least those watching on C-SPAN -- a variant of a classic campaign question: "Are you better off now than you were two years ago?"

"A little distance has allowed people to focus on [Clinton's] record and what he actually did as president, rather than just the personal stuff which overshadowed his second term," said Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist who worked for Gore's rival, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, in the 2000 presidential primaries. "As Democrats look for a way to draw a sharp contrast with the current administration, in particular on domestic policy, it's hard to think of any more credible way than to point out we actually did the things we say we want to do, and did them successfully."

Republicans scoff at Democrats' misty memories.

"While Bill Clinton may be a hero to hard-core Democrats, he's an embarrassment to the rest of the country," said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster in Georgia. "Americans may have appreciated the economy of the 1990s, but I'm not sure they chalk it up to Bill Clinton."

There is good reason to question just how much Americans miss the Clinton era and how fondly they recollect his turbulent years in office. A Gallup Poll in September found just 47% of those surveyed had a favorable opinion of the ex-president, while 49% viewed Clinton unfavorably. Even some Democrats doubt that the nation's "Clinton fatigue" has flagged.

"I like Bill Clinton, I really do. But it's a different world when we step outside the doors of this hotel," said Greg Knutson, a farmer and Democratic leader in Minnesota who attended the party's recent winter meeting in Washington, D.C. "I think Clinton will eventually go down in history as a great president. But that's still a long time away."

In the meantime, many Democrats see some short-term benefits to running on Clinton's record -- particularly at this stage of the campaign, when the presidential candidates are focused mainly on winning their party's nomination. Even though he remains a polarizing figure among the public at large, repeated surveys have shown that Clinton is still quite popular among Democratic Party loyalists. In fact, many are still angry over Gore's efforts to distance himself from Clinton during the 2000 campaign.

"We had a candidate unwilling to trumpet the success of policies he was deeply involved with. For that reason alone we blew the election," said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster who helped reelect California Gov. Gray Davis. "So it only goes to follow that the next batch of candidates aren't going to be hesitant about praising" Clinton.

Gore loyalists see things differently. A certain distancing is required for every vice president to step from the shadow of the president he hopes to succeed, they argue, and that was especially true for Gore. "If Clinton hadn't had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, Al Gore would have won the election by seven to 12 points," said one former vice presidential aide, who requested anonymity. "Fundamentally, he just couldn't get past that."

Neither Clinton nor Gore would comment for this article.

But Clinton allies take a certain told-you-so satisfaction in his return as a presence in the 2004 race. The former president has yet to offer his much-coveted endorsement in the crowded nomination fight, instead quietly counseling several of the candidates behind the scenes.

"It's about time Democrats realize that we had very good years under Bill Clinton, and his policies contributed to that," said Al From, whose center-hugging Democratic Leadership Council served as an incubator for Clinton's candidacy and many of his White House initiatives. "We ought to be proud of what we achieved. We ought to talk about it."

As yet, there has been little discussion by the presidential hopefuls of Clinton's policies beyond vague promises to balance the budget and revive some of his environmental protection efforts. Gephardt, for one, has explicitly condemned Clinton's effort to overhaul the nation's health-care system -- even as he acknowledged his support at the time -- saying its failure taught him the danger of relying on "big government" solutions.

Instead, Clinton's utility seems to be largely symbolic, as a totem of more prosperous and less anxious times. "There's a very distinct and pronounced point of view among Democratic primary voters that things were a lot better when Clinton was in office, that the policies of the '90s seemed to be delivering much better results to average working families," said Ed Reilly, a strategist for the Gephardt campaign. "People had a far greater degree of confidence in the economic future of the country than they do right now."

Democrats differ over whether that contrast is a message they can, or should, try to carry into a general election against President Bush -- assuming, as Democrats fervently do, that the economy and domestic concerns will trump defense and foreign policy by the time voters get around to making up their minds.

Chris Lehane, who served as a spokesman for Gore in 2000 and now advises the presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, suggested that "part of the debate in the general election will inevitably be the approach the Democrats used and used very successfully in the 1990s compared with the disastrous approach the Bush administration has used. That lines up pretty nicely."

But Dunn warned against taking the comparisons too far, insisting nostalgia is no substitute for vision.

"No one wants to turn this into a referendum on the Clinton-Gore administration," Dunn said. "You can cite the Clinton record to validate Democratic arguments about what kind of economic policy to pursue and what our priorities are. But clearly, the election has to be about tomorrow and not about yesterday."

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