- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2000

LOS ANGELES.

Bill Clinton ought to quit worrying about his legacy, because he's got a big one.

From the Atlantic to the Pacific, he's the unseen guest every time Democrats and Republicans get together to talk about who they want in the White House.

California's Democrats, who choose their favorite in the March 7 primaries that will settle once and for all who will arrive in Los Angeles with the most delegates, met last week in San Jose for their state convention, and when Bill Clinton's name came up, nearly everyone looked at his shoes, scuffed a toe across the floor, and tried not to look embarrassed.

"The only way the Democratic Party could fail to win in the year 2000 is if we did not take the reform mantle, and we failed to be bold enough in these times of enormous change," Bill Bradley told the state convention. "If we don't stand up for reform, we have a special vulnerability. Republicans are expected to be in the pockets of the special interests. But Democrats are not. We're supposed to be the party of reform, the party that helps the little guy. So when people get in bed with the special interests, we have a crisis of identity."

Al Gore followed him to the podium an hour later, and defended the Clinton years, if not Hillary's husband himself. "Nobody should run for the Democratic nomination by running down the Democratic achievements of the past seven years.

"I guess with 20 million new jobs here in California that's pretty good job placement. The real Democrat is not the one who seems to be taking his talking points from the Republican National Committee. Real Democrats don't aid and abet the Republicans. Standing together, we stay and fight against the Republicans who are the party of retreat, reaction and recrimination."

If this was not quite red meat, it was the milk-fed veal that California Democrats many of whom would have actually preferred an arugula-and-bean-sprout salad could cheer as rhetoric that praised the Clinton years while leaving Hillary's husband out of it.

Bill Bradley, down 4 to 1 in some California public-opinion polls, continues to run not so much against Al Gore as Clinton Gore, as if "Clinton" were the veep's Christian name (or given name, as we probably should call it in the politically correct context of Democratic politics). He is taking his talking points from the Republican National Committee because he doesn't have to; these are the talking points that are in the air, heard in California as if an echo from distant New Hampshire and South Carolina, usually as remote to Californians as Kosovo or Kandahar.

Character, which a year ago didn't count at all, suddenly seems to count for everything. "I go more for character," a factory worker, 29, tells the New York Times. "With Clinton, I went for the issues. But now I wish I'd paid more attention to Clinton's character."

With the economy threatening to soar into an adjoining solar system and with nobody in sight to threaten the nation's security, a lot of voters, both here in California, no less than in the rest of the country that seems eventually to follow California's lead, seem to think it's OK to consider character as a way to avoid another Clinton, ever again.

"They clearly want someone who can make them feel good about this country," says Walter Mondale, the former vice president who had the misfortune to run (in 1984) when the nation was in a similar hero-hunting mood. "This year we don't have a Soviet Union coming at us, the economy seems pretty good, and if you ask what people are interested in, it's all over the map."

Yes, indeed. A Gallup Poll finds that 83 percent of the voters polled expressed satisfaction with the economy, and 54 percent were interested in their children's schools. But barely a quarter of them said they were happy with the nation's "moral values." It doesn't take a rocket scientist to connect the dots to Bill Clinton.

This naturally helps an insurgent candidate, like John McCain and maybe even Bill Bradley, as some of his California friends insist. Some of them were offended, or said they were, by the ferocity of Al Gore's assault on their man much like the offense taken in South Carolina by George W. partisans when he was accused of being just another Bill Clinton.

"I was shocked," said one lady lawyer delegate to the Los Angeles Times. "Bradley went out of his way not to be divisive, to call on us to be better people."

Shock is not an emotion often associated with presidential politics, but such is the aura around Bill Bradley and John McCain in the moral wreckage of the Clinton years. Some legacy.

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