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Gore's Nightmare: 2000 Is Shaping Up Poorly for Mr. Clean

Michael J. Ring

It wasn't supposed to happen this way for Al Gore. In an administration rocked by scandal, the Vice President was to be Mr. Clean. His ethics were beyond reproach. No one would ever doubt his character.

When 2000 rolled around, Al Gore would be blessed by the incumbent in his quest for the White House. After putting in eight years of solid, loyal service to a centrist Democrat able to build consensus and coalitions, Gore would inherit the popularity of Bill Clinton.

Al Gore spent 1997 reaping the fruits of the seeds that Bill Clinton planted. Rather than receiving praise and popularity, however, Gore is left with a handful of bitter pills: an increasingly divided Democratic Party and allegations surrounding his own ethics.

Gore is still the frontrunner among the Democrats in 2000; the nomination is still his to lose. But if Gore's performance in 1997 is an indicator of his performance in 1998, Dick Gephardt has every reason to smile.

It all began to unravel for Mr. Clean late in the 1996 campaign, when it was revealed he had attended a controversial meeting at a Buddhist temple in California. It is illegal to solicit political donations at the site of a tax-exempt religious organization, and Gore's aides have repeatedly denied the event at the Hsi Lai temple outside Los Angeles was a fundraiser. But Gore himself has said he knew "finance people" would be there and his attendance was "inappropriate." Buddhist nuns have testified they made $5,000 donations to the Democratic Party and were then reimbursed by the temple, an allegation that would be another violation of campaign finance law. And the nuns admitted to destroying documents, worrying they would harm the image of the temple.

Now it's Al Gore who's trying to save face. But it doesn't end there.

Apparently the Vice President also made phone calls soliciting donations from his White House office. This may violate the Pendleton Act, which forbids political solicitations in most federal buildings.

Many campaign finance laws are vaguely written and open to wide interpretation, and because Attorney General Janet Reno declined to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Gore and it is unlikely he will face charges. But in the game of public perception, Al Gore is guilty as charged. Gore's approval rating, once in the stratospheric 60s, was at 53 percent in the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, taken at the end of October. The same poll revealed 35 percent of respondents felt Al Gore is not honest and trustworthy, a number irreconcilable with the image of Mr. Clean.

As of yet, Gore has played no role in the Monica Lewinski fiasco, which is potentially the most damaging political scandal to shake the Beltway since Watergate. But he's clearly in the fallout zone. Positioned to run as the heir-apparent to Clinton, Gore will be saddled with all the questions that plagued the Man from Hope. Wild imaginations will only wonder if Gore did in fact have any role and spread theories to an American public starving for scandal.

Even in the highly unlikely possibility that Clinton were to be impeached and evicted from office, incumbency would not be an advantage for Al Gore. Such an event would only cement the inseverable link between Gore and Clinton and give the vice president even more political baggage when he's already heavily weighed down.

As if the campaign finance scandals and the sexual harassment allegations surrounding Clinton weren't enough for Gore, he is quickly being outflanked by potential Democratic rivals in the year 2000. Divisions in the Democratic party and liberals' dissatisfaction with the Clinton-Gore record only spell more trouble for the vice president in the year 2000.

Perhaps no issue demonstrates the divide between New Democrats and liberals than the issue of trade. The Clinton-Gore administration has embraced initiatives such as NAFTA, GATT, and fast-track presidential authority as ways to expand free trade. Traditional Democrats such as Representative Dick Gephardt predicted they would threaten American workers and the environment.

Four years after the enactment of NAFTA, even its most enthusiastic supporters are forced to admit the trade pact has not lived up to its great expectations. The deal is highly unpopular among blue-collar workers and union members. Gephardt has received ovations for speaking out against the pact, while the best Gore can hope for from these groups is a polite audience. Strong support of NAFTA is not going to win votes in Rust Belt states like Ohio and Michigan that are perennial swing states.

Environmentalists also have every reason to be frustrated with the vice president. In 1992 Clinton chose Gore as his running mate largely to appease the environmental community dissatisfied with Clinton's record as governor. But in the first five years of Clinton-Gore the man once known as "Ozone Man" has shifted toward the views and actions of his boss. Indeed, the administration's greatest environmental achievement has been saving existing laws from the jaws of an anti-environment, Republican Congress. Gore even visited Japan to pour cold water on ambitious European efforts to combat global warming. If Congress fails to pass the Kyoto accords, the Clinton-Gore environmental record will be a disaster.

Gephardt has also heard the conservative credo of massive IRS overhaul. He has called for a greatly simplified tax code and cuts for the poor and middle classes. Gore is loath to embrace such radical measures after the passage of the delicate balanced budget deal. If the accord does produce a balanced budget it will be one of the great accomplishments of this administration. But nobody's breaking out the black ink yet.

To further compound the vice president's problems, there is a reasonable possibility that Dick Gephardt will be speaker of the house come January 1999. Normally an administration would rejoice at regaining a house of Congress. But this development would give Gephardt the perfect platform to highlight the differences between his vision and the administration's. It would also give him the power to deal the administration embarrassing legislative defeats just when Gore's political future depends on victories in Congress.

Gore could benefit if too many liberals crowd the Democratic primary field. The candidacies of Senators Paul Wellstone and John Kerry would pare Gephardt's support. A run by Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, however, could cut into Gore's support among conservative Democrats. And a run by former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley may mortally cripple Gore. Moderate and maverick, Bradley has been critical of the administration and has been gaining support in early tracking polls, apparently at Gore's expense.

There are still two years until the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire enter the caucus halls and voting booths to make their presidential preferences known. But two years is not a long time in a process that began even before the last election was over. And unless Al Gore comes up with some new ideas and answers fast, his poll numbers will show whether "the Ozone hole" has taken on a whole new meaning.