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Jewish World Review May 19, 1999 /4 Sivan 5759

David Corn

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Meet the New Boss

(JWR) ---- (
PICTURE AL GORE and his advisers holding a late-night strategy session to brainstorm about the problems facing the Second Man.

He’s doing poorly in the polls. The war in Kosovo could turn into political quicksand. He has stood by a fellow tainted by personal misdeeds and campaign finance improbity. His semi-flailing campaign has not yet persuaded the public into thinking that Gore stands for anything other than politics as usual. Imagine someone in the smoke-free room piping up: “I know what we do. Let’s bring in as campaign chairman a party hack who was investigated for ethical troubles and is best known as a shakedown artist for campaign funds. That’ll do the trick.”

A political lay person might expect that this aide would be banished, perhaps packed off to the campaign office in charge of crafting the contingency plan for a race against Dan Quayle. But in Gore-land, such a suggestion is cheered and approved. Thus, last week, Gore decided to name former congressman Tony Coelho as the head of his campaign.

Coelho, a Democrat from California, was majority whip in the House of Representatives before resigning in 1989, as ethics investigators, not so coincidentally, were probing his personal finances. His abdication came shortly after House Speaker Jim Wright was forced out due to a scorched-earth ethics inquiry launched by Newt Gingrich. Coelho is renowned in Washington for his creation of a money-gathering machine for the Democratic Party. In the early 1980s, he and a few colleagues looked at the lock the Republicans had on corporate contributions and asked why they couldn’t do that. They had a point, for the Democrats controlled Congress.

If business interests wanted access to those who ran the committees—the lawmakers truly in charge—they could pony up for the Democrats. The Coelho plan worked, and the money flowed into the Democrats’ pockets. The Dems still continued to be outraised by the Republicans, but Coelho ushered in a new era of pay-to-have-a-say fundraising. He specialized in hitting up business political action committees and squeezing soft money from various industries. He blazed the trail that led to the scandalous fundraising practices of the Clinton-Gore gang. Coelho is the prodigal moneyman come back to the Democratic (not Buddhist) temple.

One of Gore’s liabilities is that after seven years of Clinton—it feels like an eternity—he is the candidate of same old same old. He is too much a part of an administration of which many Americans have grown tired. He is too much a part of the Washington crowd. Coelho—a symbol of campaign finance excess—only reinforces these Gore negatives.

Bill Bradley, the former Knick and former senator challenging Gore for the Democratic nomination, had to be pleased by this development. At house parties across the country, he’s been talking up the need for campaign finance reform. “What could be better for us?” a Bradley aide asks, with a chuckle. Yet a few pundits hailed the selection. Morton Kondracke declared, “Coelho is about as smart a Democrat as there is... I think the Gore team needs high-level help, and he needs to attract the best people there are in the Democratic Party.” NPR’s Mara Liasson opined, “Tony Coelho is a good choice. He’s a grown-up. Hopefully he can be the one leader of this campaign.” When conventional commentators praise such a conventional move, Gore ought to worry.

Panic among the Gore partisans is premature. Opponents who at this moment appear capable of robbing Gore of his to-the-White-House-born destiny—Bradley and Bush—are novices as presidential contenders. With the primaries eight months off, there’re still plenty of beyond-the-campaign events that could affect the race: a stock-market crash, another war, a Y2K disaster, one more Clinton scandal. But, clearly, Gore is not coasting. Recently, a poll in Tennessee—his home state (well, he spent summers there when not growing up in a downtown Washington hotel)—placed Gore in a statistical tie with Texas Gov. George W. Bush. In the survey, Gore lost 51 to 43 percent among men and triumphed 49-35 among women; his favorable rating was 52 percent to Bush’s 49 percent.

This was certainly a sign of trouble for Gore, even if such early polling should not be taken too seriously. But by turning to Coelho, a money-grubbing poohbah of the Democratic Party establishment, as his savior, Gore demonstrates he does not recognize one of his basic flaws. For Gore supporters, that should be a reason for real fear.

JWR contributor David Corn, Washington Editor of The Nation, writes the "Loyal Opposition" column for The New York Press.


05/14/99: A 37-Year Losing Streak
05/12/99: Funds Before Guns
05/07/99: Missing In Action
05/05/99: Gun Shy
04/30/99: A Flyover War
04/28/99: Darwin Made Me Do It
04/16/99: Spin to Sell
04/16/99: No Controlling Authority
04/16/99: Damage Done
04/14/99: No Left Churn
04/12/99: Clinton’s Policy Bombs
04/09/99: A Cuban Frost
04/05/99: Coups and Fibbers
03/31/99: The Flynt Fizzle
03/24/99: Liddy and St. Steve
03/19/99: Hope in Hollywood
03/12/99: Clinton: The Novel
03/08/99: A Tale of Two Clintons
03/04/99: ..and Dumber
03/01/99: Post-Mortem Ad Nauseam
02/25/99: What’s Next?

©1999, David Corn