Clinton exhorts the Democrats to think bigger

President backs Gore, mocks Bush during meeting in Baltimore

A challenge to centrists

July 15, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

With Texas Gov. George W. Bush just miles away at an East Baltimore community center, President Clinton waded into the 2000 presidential campaign for the first time yesterday, mocking the GOP front-runner's trademark "compassionate conservatism" while challenging his own party to think bigger in its quest to retain the White House.

Clinton keynoted the centrist Democratic Leadership Council's "national conversation" at the Baltimore Convention Center, basking in the accolades and gratitude of an organization he helped raise to national prominence.

And without uttering Bush's name, Clinton accused the Texas governor of expropriating the rhetoric of the political center without adopting the policies.

Compassionate conservatism means, "I like you, I do," the president mocked in his best "feel your pain" anguish. "And I would like to be for the Patients Bill of Rights. I'd like to be for closing the gun show loophole, and I'd like not to squander the surplus, and [to] save Social Security and Medicare for the next generation.

"I'd like to do these things," Clinton told an appreciative audience of Democratic officeholders clinging to Clinton's "New Democrat" label. "But I just can't, and I feel terrible about it."

Informed of Clinton's comments,Bush quipped, "It's amazing that the president of the United States would spend time talking about me, even before I get my party's nomination."

If Clinton was oblique in his reference to Bush, California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante was more direct in his introduction of the president.

"Right now, there is a joke going around the country," Bustamante said. "It's called `compassionate conservatism.' Some Republicans think that if you put a nice word in front of a mean word, you can fool people, the way some Texas Republicans think that all you have to do to get the Latino vote is to speak a little Spanish."

Though Clinton has privately griped about the slow start of his chosen successor, Vice President Al Gore, he has publicly stayed on the sidelines as Bush has streaked to front-runner status, not only in the Republican primary field but in the general election.

Clinton sees a Gore victory as pivotal if he is to secure a positive historic legacy, instead of watching his scandal-tainted administration go down as a Democratic blip in a series of Republican White Houses.

But Clinton aides have debated what role Clinton should take in the campaign. Recent polls have indicated that his visible support for Gore could do more harm then good with a general electorate showing signs of Clinton fatigue, and Gore campaign aides have continually worried about the telegenic president upstaging his No. 2.

Yesterday, Clinton jumped into the game.

The White House announced that the president would begin a series of fund-raising appearances for Gore next month and appear publicly with his vice president for the first time since late May. Clinton will join Gore at an Aug. 7 fund-raising event in Little Rock, Ark., and will participate in four fund-raising dinners for Gore in Washington, two each on Aug. 10 and Sept. 22, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said.

Clinton also appeared to obliquely offer some advice to Gore, indirectly challenging him to think bigger than vice presidential proposals that have been derided as too limited, such as combating urban sprawl.

Clinton tossed out some grand themes of his own, like transforming the United States into the safest large country in the world, or "making America debt-free."

"We can do things that are not imaginable at the moment," he said, "if we will have good ideas and work on them in a disciplined way."

Though Gore declined an invitation to attend the DLC event, his name was mentioned constantly -- by Clinton as he sought to give the vice president credit for his administration's accomplishments, and by participants ruminating about the future of the Democratic Party and its ability to attract broad support.

Democratic politicians aligned with Clinton's "Third Way" centrism were already ruing his departure from the political stage, even with 18 months left in his presidency. After the president took the stage to a roaring ovation, one member of the audience shouted, "Four more years."

"Republicans in Kansas say, `Bill Clinton is the best president we've ever had,' but it's tough for them to take the next step" and vote for Gore, fretted Kansas state Rep. Ed McKechnie, a Democrat who backs Gore.

"I think he's done a great job," McKechnie said of Gore. "But it's hard to shake free in Clinton's shadow."

Clinton made it acceptable for Democrats to embrace conservative themes such as welfare reform and privatization of government services by winning over the Democrats' core liberal constituents, including minority voters and labor unions, so-called "New Democrats" said yesterday. Without him, the centrist Democrats could be without a dynamic leader and figurehead.

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