WASHINGTON -- For presidential candidate Al Gore, the crisis in the Balkans has no positive side. He cannot emerge from it as a winner. He might even find his campaign seriously compromised. And he has no control whatsoever over the outcome.
Indeed, all the vice president can do is just what he is doing, standing at the side of President Clinton -- both literally and figuratively -- lest he be accused of disloyalty to his political sponsor in time of crisis.
At this stage, the most logical bet would be that the crisis in Kosovo will not figure heavily, if at all, in the presidential politics of 2000. The record shows clearly that Americans are concerned about foreign policy questions only when they believe their own security may be at risk, which is not the case here. Thus, it is a fair guess that if the situation in Kosovo is resolved sometime in the next two or three months, it will be forgotten by the time voters start casting ballots in caucuses and primaries 10 months from now.
If the situation is resolved in a way that is considered a great success for the administration, the credit will go largely to President Clinton. Mr. Gore may describe himself as an "active participant" in White House discussions about the war, but he is not the one who makes the final decisions.
Whatever credit anyone earns from this exercise is likely to be extremely short-lived. Everyone in politics remembers President George Bush emerging from his successful promulgation of the war against Iraq, with approval ratings of 90 percent or higher, then watching as those ratings plummeted to below 50 percent in nine or 10 months.
The operative question in politics, as ever, is not "what have you done for me?" but, rather, "what have you done for me lately?"
So Mr. Gore can count on no credit by association from a successful prosecution of the war by the president he serves. And even if there were one, it probably wouldn't last long enough to make any difference in his campaign.
It is the other possibility that should be the most troubling to Mr. Gore and his strategists -- the darker possibility that the situation will drag on unresolved month after month to the point that the popular support today dissipates. Currently, such a notion sounds far-fetched when the talk is centered on ways to negotiate a settlement with Yugoslavia President Slobodan Milosevic that will permit everyone to save face. Surely, that won't take all summer.
That's what President Jimmy Carter thought when the Iranians took the hostages at the embassy in Tehran in November of 1979. But the situation remained essentially static for more than a year and Mr. Carter's inability to bring it to a quick and satisfying solution crystallized the doubts fostered by challenger Ronald Reagan about whether he was strong enough to be president.
The situations are, of course, entirely different. But the political problems are not. One of Mr. Gore's vulnerabilities as a presidential candidate, the opinion polls show, is that he doesn't get high marks as "a strong leader." Being such a high-profile part of an administration bogged down in the Balkans is not going to change that perception.
What Mr. Gore needs is to be able to separate himself from President Clinton. He is not going to do that with some dramatic "break" with the president such as Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey finally made with Lyndon B. Johnson on Vietnam in the 1968 campaign. This is not a situation in which the nation has been torn apart by disagreement over policy.
For Mr. Gore, making a break means establishing his own credentials on the issues that will be central to the political debate in 2000. He doesn't have to repudiate Mr. Clinton and most assuredly will not do so. But he needs to move out of the shadows so people see him as more than the president's man.
And that can be extremely difficult and perhaps impossible as long as the world is focused on what is happening in the Balkans.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.
Pub Date: 4/19/99