Y2K and party politics

October 04, 1998|By David M. Shribman

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Politics has a Y2K problem, and it's Monica Lewinsky's and President Clinton's fault. Yes, their assignations already have shaped the campaign for the year 2000.

She's the new celestial body in the political universe that's warping the orbits of all the other planets -- and she's forcing political pros to throw away their maps to the White House. Here's the rewritten playbook for 2000:

* Al Gore's role is key. If he enters the Iowa caucuses as vice president after two years of water torture over Mr. Clinton's sex life, his advantage is gone. Think of any connections with Mr. Clinton as the reverse Midas touch: Everything he touches turns to dross. But Mr. Gore won't have to distance himself from Mr. Clinton if Mr. Gore is running as president, not vice president.

Mr. Gore would be the incumbent, of course, and presumably he'd have the nation's thanks for sweeping away all the smut from the White House, an enormous advantage in the primaries but not necessarily so in the general election. Remember: Even Ronald Reagan couldn't defeat Gerald Ford in 1976. But a well-scrubbed Democrat, Jimmy Carter, could.

* Candidates had better be clean. Americans may eventually forgive Mr. Clinton's indiscretion, but they're not eager to repeat the spectacle he and Monica have made of the presidency. Candidates won't be asked whether they ever dumped their dates before the senior prom, but other than that, it's open season.

"People are going to be very attuned to the candidates' character," says Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri, a likely GOP candidate. The warning that political pros are giving to potential candidates: Anything you ever did in your life -- anything you did that ever angered anyone -- is potentially dangerous. And you can bet that before the campaign is done, someone from your deep, dark past is going to be in front of a microphone dumping all over you.

* Candidates are going to be confronted about their personal lives by their own supporters. No campaign manager worth his political button collection is going to risk going down with a morally challenged candidate. Consultants, strategists and fund-raisers are already posing the difficult questions that used to be the province of the supermarket tabloids. "The toughest thing a campaign manager is going to do before 2000 is to ask the tough questions," says Thomas Rath, a GOP national committeeman from New Hampshire with close ties to 2000 contender Lamar Alexander, the former Tennessee governor.

Every political pro remembers how Mr. Clinton deceived his own campaign strategists in the 1992 campaign about his private life. So in Campaign 2000, candidates are going to watch many of the very dollars they worked so hard to raise be spent investigating themselves -- poking around in their old tax returns, examining the business practices of their financial backers, even talking to old flames. The thinking: We have to know what the other side is going to have on us, because if we don't know now, we surely will know later.

* Newcomers are in for a rough ride. First-time candidates are often astonished at the depth and intrusiveness of the scrutiny they receive.

Potential candidates like Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone think the press in Arizona and Minnesota, respectively, already have given them the scrub. Not a chance. "My dealings prior to being governor were pretty well investigated," Gov. George W. Bush said the other day. But there's nothing in politics like being dissected by an out-of-town news reporter with no interest in the colorful local totems and no fear of powerful local sacred cows. Ask Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle, veterans of the torture -- and, as a result, less vulnerable to it in 2000 than they were in the past.

* Here come a lot of second thoughts. Governor Bush started wondering out loud this month whether the race for the GOP presidential nomination was worth the scrutiny. He'll probably decide it is. But at least a few candidates will decide it isn't. The danger, of course, is that voters begin to decide that the whole process isn't worth the bother, either.

And that may be the enduring legacy of Mr. Clinton and his other running mate, Monica Lewinsky.

David Shribman is Washington Bureau chief of the Boston Globe.

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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