Clinton Book Gives Kerry Minimal Help

Posted June 23, 2004 at 2:14pm

Bill Clinton’s book blitz might have helped Democrat John Kerry (Mass.) portray President Bush as a radical ideologue. Instead, it seems to have focused attention only on Clinton’s psyche.

Clinton’s book, “My Life,” excoriates former Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr and right-wing Republicans, but Clinton barely tries — as he might have — to link Bush to that movement for Kerry’s benefit. [IMGCAP(1)]

In interviews he’s conducted to sell the book, Clinton has characterized Bush’s Iraq policy as “ideological,” but hasn’t pressed home Kerry’s point that Bush has isolated America from its former allies.

In a teleconference with reporters on Tuesday, Kerry campaign pollster Mark Mellman said that Clinton’s book tour might serve to remind Americans of “how a successful economic strategy produced unprecedented growth and see how George Bush fails in comparison.” But that’s not a point that Clinton himself is making.

So far, most reviews have panned the book much as The New York Times did — as “a mirror of Clinton’s presidency: lack of discipline leading to squandered opportunities; high expectations undermined by self indulgence and scattered concentration.”

One of the main themes of the book itself is that Clinton’s childhood led him to lead “parallel lives” — one, purposeful and idealistic and the other, self-destructive, hidden from view and beset by “demons.”

Interviewers like Dan Rather on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and David Dimbleby on the BBC have focused primarily on the Monica Lewsinsky affair, which Clinton characterizes as a “moral failure” seized upon by Starr and his other political enemies to destroy his presidency.

In the end, my guess is that Clinton’s book and the hoopla surrounding it will have little lasting impact on this year’s presidential campaign — much the same as the impact of former President Ronald Reagan’s funeral.

But Clinton might have helped Kerry more if he had linked Bush culturally and politically to the “self-righteous, condemning, Absolute Truth-claiming dark side of white southern conservatism” that he associates in the book with Starr and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Many Democratic activists think Bush belongs squarely in that camp — and it’s a group two-thirds of American voters opposed when Starr, Gingrich & Co. impeached Clinton.

Clinton couldn’t possibly directly link Bush to the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that he claims tried to destroy him — Bush was off in Texas at the time and took no part in the proceedings — but he could have associated Bush with the right-wing mindset, portraying him as out of the mainstream.

Had Clinton not become waylaid by having to endlessly revisit the Lewsinsky affair, he also might have done more to portray Bush as out of the mainstream on foreign policy.

He did try to do so on “60 Minutes,” by concurring with Kerry that Bush should have relied on United Nations weapons inspectors to contain Saddam Hussein rather than go to war.

And, he’s said that Bush advisers such as Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were predisposed toward war with Iraq for ideological reasons.

Polls indicate that the public, inundated as it is with bad news about the enterprise, is increasingly dubious about the value of going to war with Iraq.

The Washington Post-ABC poll published this week showed that only 45 percent of registered voters approve of Bush’s handling of Iraq, down from 60 percent in February.

Seventy-six percent said that the war had damaged America’s image abroad, while only 51 percent now think it has enhanced U.S. security, as opposed to 62 percent last July.

There’s a deep dispute between the Bush and Kerry campaigns about the overall dynamics of the campaign. Mellman claimed that “John Kerry is in strong shape and George Bush is in feeble shape,” but Bush aides claim that there’s been an overall uptick in their prospects.

The Kerry camp cited the ABC poll, showing Kerry leading Bush by 48 percent to 42 percent in a two-way matchup and a National Public Radio poll showing that in battleground states, Kerry leads by 53 percent to 44 percent.

But, according to Bush aides, the weekly average of all major public polls shows renewed movement in Bush’s direction. Bush fell from an average 2.4 lead in late April to a 2.3 deficit in mid-May, owing largely to bad Iraq news.

With progress in creating a new government in Iraq and the release of stronger economic figures, Bush aides say, the president moved to an average 1.8 percent lead in five polls conducted June 7-14.

The Bush camp regards the ABC poll as an aberration, especially its finding that Bush and Kerry are tied on the issue of whom voters prefer to fight terrorism, and that Kerry has a 52-39 edge as the more “trustworthy and honest” candidate.

Bush has consistently led Kerry on the terrorism issue — by 15 points in the latest Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll — but that lead is down from margins of 30 points earlier this year. Other polls have shown the public views the two candidates as equally honest.

The bottom line seems to be that the two candidates are heading into July essentially tied, with Bush’s approval ratings hovering just below the all-important 50 percent line and with the outcome likely to hinge on real-world events, which won’t include Clinton’s book.