Living in Bill's Shadow

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CARLOS OSORIO/AP

All the Democratic candidates have to deal with the Clinton legacy

In the bleak midwinter, Bill Clinton sits in the two-story garage out back, kneading memory into history. He scribbles his memoirs in longhand on legal pads, poring over notes and transcripts of his White House years. For the moment, this deadline is more pressing than raising money for India's earthquake victims or promoting peace in Northern Ireland or touring Miami nightclubs with Julio Iglesias. It is also lit by the incandescent question of the 2004 primary campaign: What does it mean to be a Democrat anymore? Having lost the White House and five straight House elections, does the party need to be burned down and rebuilt to have any hope of winning back the hearts and minds of a majority of the American people? Is the shadow Clinton casts over the field more imagined than real?

We know a legacy when we see one. Ronald Reagan not only changed the landscape while he was in office, but he also had fundamentally changed his party by the time he left, to the point that Bush the father lost by not being enough like Reagan while Bush the son won because he was. Now Clinton cannot pick up a newspaper without reading about some rejection of his free-trading, difference-splitting, soccer mom-wooing ways by candidates representing "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." "We're not going to beat George Bush by being Bush Lite," Howard Dean declared last week in Nashua, N.H.

"The way to beat George Bush is to give the 50% of Americans who quit voting because they can't tell the difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party a reason to vote again." Take that, Triangulator in Chief. But before Clinton gets too glum, chances are the phone will ring and it will be one of the candidates calling to pick his brain. They want to know how Clinton would campaign if he were up against this President Bush rather than the last one. The old playbook won't work anymore; the landscape is changed, and this George Bush is building a legacy of his own. Whatever their differences, Clinton is talking to all the candidates because, his friends say, they share one goal: ensuring another one-term Bush presidency.

And so Clinton is the ghost in all their political machines, massaging Dick Gephardt's message, editing John Edwards' speeches, matchmaking between Wesley Clark and the party rainmakers. If too much time passes between calls, friends say, Clinton gets a little peeved, like a mother wanting her kids to succeed when they head off to college, but not without her help. "He knows what they are going through," says a source who chats with Clinton often. "He has helped them think through their own strengths and weaknesses." But none of the Democrats can do that without first coming to grips with Clinton's, deciding what to borrow and what to bury.

Discouraged centrists, listening to the overture to the 2004 race, are worried that the party is tone-deaf and doesn't know it. Although Clinton was able to handle its multiple belief systems, going into this race there is nothing resembling harmony on anything from trade to taxes to the wisdom of going to war. "What the Democrats don't realize is that they aren't ready for an election, but the electoral clock is inexorable and so we're having one," says a former Clinton aide. "They think Bush-hating is a vision. It's not. There is no agreement about how to govern."

That is not a problem the Republicans have. From the moment they rode in, they knew exactly what they wanted to do. Where Clinton stayed up all night brainstorming policy only to revisit the outcome the next day, Bush is famously decisive and anchored in his beliefs, charging forward, not looking back. You expect that when one party reclaims the White House some redecorating is in order: Bush might replace those portraits of Franklin Roosevelt with cousin Teddy's. But Richard Nixon didn't ax the Peace Corps, while Bush let AmeriCorps go through several near-death experiences even though it was the one program Clinton personally asked him to protect. Over at the Agency for International Development, officials spent $100,000 on a collage to cover up a bronze plaque honoring Hillary Clinton for her work overseas. Bush has reversed not only Clinton's traditional Democratic initiatives—like the environmental regulations he approved in the last weeks of his tenure—but even his adopted Republican principles. It is Bush who has hurled the budget out of balance and moved away from free trade.

"People on our side underestimated how determined and driven these new guys were," says a top Democratic aide in the Senate. But if Democratic voters were alarmed by Bush's juggernaut, they were appalled at the Washington Democrats, who just lay down in front of it. Ted Kennedy compromised on school testing to help pass Bush's education bill, only to see the promised extra funding disappear. Rather than try to block the Bush tax cuts, Democrats focused on reducing their size. Just as Republicans could not stop Clinton from appropriating fiscal responsibility and crime fighting as Democratic issues, Democrats could not stop Bush from claiming victory on prescription drugs, immigration and the Homeland Security Department—a department that was first proposed by Democrats.

"We were asleep at the switch," admits a Democratic aide. "That's why Dean got his lift-off. He saw how angry Democrats across the country really were." In a Time/cnn poll, 77% of Democrats said the party needs better leaders in Congress, and 63% said it hasn't been strong enough in taking on President Bush. Listen to the Democrats who are turning up at high school gyms on cold New Hampshire nights, and you hear almost as much anger aimed at Washington Democrats as at the White House. "The Democratic Party essentially collapsed after the 2000 elections," Dean argues. "George Bush lost, essentially, by 500,000 votes ... and our guys acted as if he had a mandate. And the result is the most radical President we've had." Voting with the g.o.p. 80% of the time is no way for an opposition party to behave. "You can't accommodate them," argues Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi. "You're either with them or against them."

Dean is considered the un-Clinton in this race: if Clinton let us know he felt our pain, Dean makes it clear that he won't. The doctor is cool and clinical, as though that's what it takes to handle this emergency. If Clinton was desperate to please, Dean often seems eager to bruise—brusqueness as a badge of courage. Yet Dean and his acolytes insist he is not rejecting Clinton's message as much as his methods: in this climate, Dean says, obsessing over swing voters is a mistake. His activist effort aims at getting the people who agree with him to vote rather than persuading the people who vote to agree with him. In this sense, he is attempting to return the party to its pre-Clinton state. "We are going to take back the Democratic Party from the idea that the way to win elections is to neglect our base." Dean has labeled "Republican" the centrist Democratic Leadership Council that Clinton chaired. His latest slogan even ricochets off a Clinton line: "It's the people, stupid."

But Dean is more sly than he lets on. If President Bush ran like Clinton but has governed very differently, Dean implies he would govern like Clinton even though he is running differently. "I governed as a centrist, I balanced budgets, I have positions on most issues that characterize a centrist," says Dean, who talks to Clinton regularly. Dean notes that he supported the first Gulf War and every U.S. military action since, until Iraq, and that he is actually to the right of Clinton on gun control. One of Dean's best applause lines is that he's for repealing the Bush tax cuts in order to restore the Clinton economy.

But if anyone is selling his campaign as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Clinton Legacy Project it would be Clark, Clinton's fellow Arkansas Rhodes scholar whose organization is plump with Clinton alums. Clark campaign chairman Eli Segal, a Friend of Bill for three decades, is on the phone to Chappaqua about three times a week. Clinton will often call the campaign with word that he "had dinner with so-and-so. They said nice things about Wes. You should follow up," according to a senior adviser. Yet Clark risks overplaying the idea that he's Clinton's heir: Clinton called at least one other candidate last week to deny a story in the New York Post that he has been secretly helping Clark's campaign.

Meanwhile, Joe Lieberman's website offers a link to the Lieberman-Clinton Connection, which starts with the fact that "a young Yale Law student named Bill Clinton" worked on Lieberman's first campaign in 1970. The relationship was not always so warm: the self-conscious voice of values in the party was the first Senate Democrat to denounce Clinton for his conduct in 1998. But that did not stop Lieberman going himself to the Elks Lodge in New Hampshire, where an embattled Clinton famously revived his campaign in 1992 amid charges of draft dodging and philandering. Invoking Clinton's name 22 times, Lieberman even closed with the same battle cry: "I'll be here for you—until the last dog dies."

None of this stagecraft was exactly original, however, since John Kerry had been to the same Elks Lodge five days earlier. In a question-and-answer period, he reminded a voter that he had already asked Clinton to be his Middle East envoy—and that Clinton had accepted. When Kerry was having problems last summer connecting with voters at his campaign stops, Clinton, on a cell-phone call to Kerry on his bus, "gave him very good advice about framing the real impact of the Bush budget cuts in real-person terms," says a Kerry aide, "to bring it down to the people."

Dick Gephardt has also had to make peace with a former President who regularly rolled over him on trade issues. In a 1997 speech at Harvard, Gephardt went so far as to denounce "some who talk about the political center but fail to understand that if it is only defined by others, it lacks core values," or some "who too often market a political strategy masquerading as policy." Yet he talks in every speech about how he and Clinton fought together to get through the 1993 economic package, which passed without one Republican vote. When Gephardt fretted about running against an array of fresh faces, Clinton told him to stress his experience, because that was something that voters would value.

As for rising star John Edwards, he has the accent, instincts and upbeat style to help him evoke memories of Clinton, except for his rants against Clinton's North American Free Trade Agreement. Clinton himself once said Edwards could "talk an owl out of a tree," but that as a relative novice he needed to do some more homework to nail down his policies. Edwards consulted with Clinton on his health-care proposal, and often sends him copies of the candidate's speeches—Clinton has proved an eager Copy Editor in Chief.

As the fight begins in earnest, it's worth remembering that a party seems at its most fratricidal during primary season. Candidates stress their differences because they need to give voters a reason to turn their way. So Gephardt offers an immense health-care plan, while other proposals are more incremental; he and Dean would scrap the entire Bush tax cut, while Kerry, Edwards, Clark and Lieberman preserve the middle-class part; and the group is split on whether the war in Iraq was necessary or not. The next few weeks will say a lot about where the base of the party resides. And after a single nominee survives this steeplechase, he will have a better chance of sketching out a nice, coherent direction in which to guide his party through a general election against a very focused opponent. After all, he will be the party standard bearer.

But Clinton's shadow may still overwhelm the present. It's hard to say what the party became under Clinton because he was the party, and he was so notoriously hard to define. Dismissive of his message but dazzled by his success, many Democrats just hummed to themselves and looked the other way because it was working, and he was winning. "You can't erase Bill Clinton if you never embraced him in the first place," says a former official who unlike many Clinton aides really was a New Democrat. "Clinton defined the direction of the country irrespective of the party," the aide says. Clinton knew he would be the youngest ex-President since Teddy Roosevelt, who left office at age 51 and proceeded to divide his party out of bitterness over the direction it had taken. That is not a path Clinton wants to follow. He too wants a legacy, and it may be defined not by what he did in the past but by how he manages those who will be the party's future.

—With reporting by Perry Bacon Jr. with Dean and Michael Duffy, Karen Tumulty and Douglas Waller/Washington