This much we know: Al Gore will be around the Democratic Presidential campaign through November, and his job will be to run for President. Everything–and everyone–else is up for grabs.
And for the résumé hawks of Washington, D.C., no one’s future is more worth watching than that of Donna Brazile, the conquering Vice President’s campaign manager.
“I still have to secure the nomination,” said Ms. Brazile, reached on Sunday, March 5, at Gore headquarters in Nashville. She was responding to rampant rumors that after Super Tuesday, she was off to clean up the mess at the Democratic National Committee, and that it was Massachusetts son Michael Whouley who was digging his heels into the center of the Gore action for the long haul. “We still have to get to 2,169.”
Naturally. But once that number of delegates necessary for the Democratic nomination is a foregone conclusion, and the funeral meats of former Senator Bill Bradley’s Presidential aspirations have had time to grow cold, what will be on Ms. Brazile’s agenda? It is a question that has the Beltway on full alert, and it’s not hard to understand why: Now that Team Gore has, like the candidate himself, evolved from a beefy bumbler to a leaner, keener and very much meaner specimen, what will become of its uncommonly high-profile captain, the first African-American woman to manage a Presidential campaign? Will Ms. Brazile be rewarded as the history-making warrior who slashed spending, whipped the troops into shape and rallied the reliably Democratic masses? Or, in the media blackout after the saturation coverage of Super Tuesday, will she be decanted as a loose-lipped liability, best known for insulting Republicans in general and black war-hero Republicans in particular? “The Republicans bring out Colin Powell and [Representative] J.C. Watts [Republican of Oklahoma] because they have no program, no policy,” Ms. Brazile told Bloomberg.com in January. “They’d rather take pictures with black children than feed them.”
Less outrageous but, in some quarters, more politically bothersome, Ms. Brazile also admitted, last November, that the old Democratic proclivity for partitioning the electorate into discrete pleats of panderability has never died; it has just fallen further down on the press releases. “The four pillars of the Democratic Party are African-Americans, labor, women and what I call other ethnic minorities,” Ms. Brazile told The Washington Post in January, instantly evoking a collective New Democratic wince. “The emerging constituencies are environmentalists, gays and lesbians and those with physical disabilities.” Or might her fate dovetail into both–with an assignment to be Mr. Gore’s eyes and ears and, of course, his soft-money spender–with the Democratic National Committee?
However high-octane she has been on other questions, Ms. Brazile was low-keying this one. “Why would you plan on what to have for dinner next week when you don’t even know if you’ll be hungry?” she asked. Several top Gore campaign aides also insisted that no decisions on such matters have been made.
In any event, if Ms. Brazile is hungry next week, it need not be for humble pie. First of all, whatever her shortcomings in the public relations field, she has just helped to engineer a whistle-clean sweep of 16 primaries by a candidate who was viewed, not so long ago, as a human sacrifice to the god George W. Bush–and for that matter who was viewed, incredible as it now seems, as a desperate, wind-up-Ken contrast to that walking tower of cool, Bill Bradley. For purposes of that endeavor, while the “pillars” strategy was not smart for her to state, it was, many argue, essential for her to execute–particularly given Mr. Bradley’s attempts to reach around Mr. Gore’s left shoulder and scoop up votes from the seven constituencies she mentioned. Though Ms. Brazile cannot claim credit for Mr. Gore’s fortunes turning so favorably as to invert the classic principle of the polarizing primary. That distinction lies with Mr. Bradley: Rather than forcing the front-runner to the politically problematic left, the former Senator, in the end, served only to glide Mr. Gore to the vital, indeed politically magical, center, by attacking Mr. Gore for being–or rather, having been–a conservative Democrat, who voted against Medicaid funding for abortions and such. Manifestly failing to kill him, that move as manifestly made Mr. Gore stronger going into the general election.
“Bradley not only tacked to the left, he pushed us to the right,” said a senior Gore adviser. “He certainly helped push us into the mainstream.”
“We went to the Apollo Theater and argued for welfare reform and attacked quotas,” said another adviser. (It also didn’t hurt that Spike Lee, in his capacity as famous, if way off-message, pre-debate spinmeister for Mr. Bradley, speculated to reporters that Bill Clinton just might be the most popular President among African-Americans since Emancipation.)
Of course, all this occurred at a debate where the questioning was led off by the Rev. Al Sharpton, a figure who has fast become the left-wing “tat” for Republicans needful of a response to the right-wing “tit” that is Mr. Bush’s visit to Bob Jones University. It is here that the aggregate of Ms. Brazile’s remarks achieve some significance in the discussion of her future–and not because of the remarks per se. It’s what those remarks say about her style as a political operative and her substance as a political thinker, and where that combination fits into a general election campaign for President of the United States.
“We hope Donna Brazile’s sketch of the ‘pillars’ of Democratic strength does not represent the genuine blueprint for the Vice President’s campaign,” said the centrist Democratic Leadership Council at the time of the remark. “This ‘base-constituency-group’ strategy was central to the failed Democratic Presidential campaigns of the 1980’s. By contrast, the Clinton-Gore victories in 1992 and 1996 focused on a broad message based on common values and new ideas that appealed both to the ‘base’ and to the swing voters who usually decide elections.” This is one theory of Democratic hegemony, but there is an opposite theory, espoused by the likes of Ms. Brazile, and the two are still very much at odds in the Democratic Party.
“One of the reasons that I think Bush lost in ’92 is that Bush could not put together a winning coalition: women, unions, African-Americans,” said Bill Lynch, a D.N.C. vice chairman with close ties to the Gore campaign in general and with Ms. Brazile in particular. “The way [Republicans] win is, large components of those coalitions stay home.” Democrats would, of course, be quick to point out that this choice is hardly an either-or–they want inner-city blacks and Michael Eisner–but, in the day-to-day, hand-to-hand campaign combat of firing messages and deploying resources, it does become at least a question of emphasis. And in a race where the newly minted John McCain Independents and Democrats will be the key, it might become a good deal more than that.
If Ms. Brazile decamps to the D.N.C., she will do so after a job well done, and in the interest of a job that very much needs to be done. She will also be following in the footsteps of many a campaign operative before her. (She could also, as many point out, be forgiven for wanting to sleep from now to November.) But where she goes, and what she ends up doing, will say a great deal about the direction of the Gore campaign going forward. And as important as what happens is how it happens.
“She committed to getting through to the nomination,” said a Gore aide, who praised Ms. Brazile as a great “institutional Democrat” with valuable connections throughout the Democratic base.
Those things are all true, but they can sound funny–and therefore, in this case, what might be a matter of course can become a matter of some delicacy.
“‘You’re good for a black person,’ or ‘You’re the best of the black operatives,'” said Mr. Lynch, who was careful to emphasize that he was addressing the kinds of remarks that are sometimes made by way of dismissing African-American strategists, not anything he knew to have been said about Ms. Brazile. “When they talk about white operatives, they never say that all they can do is work the white community.”
For that, among other reasons, is why no operative, white or otherwise, is saying anything other than that Ms. Brazile will leave the campaign on her own terms–if she leaves at all.
“If she decides she wants to stay,” said a top adviser, “she stays.”