Virginia Fireworks

July 09, 1993

One of the weirder escapades of the political off-season is President Clinton's intervention into the vicious feud between Virginia's Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, and its senior U.S. senator, Charles S. Robb. These two Democrats have been at each other's throats for years, trading not only barbs but charges very close to criminality. They could yet be involved next year in a Democratic primary for the Senate seat Mr. Robb occupies and Mr. Wilder covets, his hold on the governorship expiring this year.

Now comes Mr. Clinton with a fund-raising mass mailing on Senator Robb's behalf, a move variously described as a blunder in support of an old friend and a shrewd Robb-instigated maneuver to goad Governor Wilder into running as an independent. Whatever the explanation, University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato calls it "absolutely unprecedented for a president to intervene in an intra-party contest."

The Clinton letter praises Mr. Robb for "helping to shape my economic package and providing valuable input on the health care reform effort." This encomium drew a predictable broadside from Mr. Wilder, who cited it as proof that "Robb's vote is up for sale" and that he has "traded his vote in the Senate to support an anti-Virginia federal budget in exchange for help from the president." The governor's aides were said to be gleeful, anticipating the Clinton letter would be an albatross around the senator's neck as well as further evidence of a party conspiracy against Mr. Wilder.

Aside from their entertainment value, the Robb-Wilder fireworks have national import. If the Democrats hurt themselves badly enough, this would give a leg up to Oliver North, the Iran-contra figure who is campaigning hard for the Republican nomination. With his fund-raising ability and his devoted band of followers, Mr. North is already a national headliner who could be one more headache for Mr. Clinton if he ever makes it to the Senate.

From a political point of view, Mr. Clinton's intervention makes little sense. Not only does he risk having it demonstrated that he has no coattails, but the Wilder strategy is clearly aimed to show he is a liability. Maybe he will raise some money, but will it be worth it -- to himself or Chuck Robb?

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