What Did You Do in the Debacle, Tony?

Chatterbox is in awe of Tony Coelho’s ability to escape blame for the Democrats’$2 1994 congressional debacle. His appointment as chairman of Al Gore’s presidential campaign (which Time, rather ungallantly, is blaming on Tipper Gore) has raised all sorts of eyebrows because Coelho led the House Democrats’ corporate money chase in the 1980s and left Congress under an ethical cloud involving some junk-bond investments. The Washington commentariat’s line is that Coelho isn’t likely to make voters forget about Gore’s own fund-raising bêtises. But what about the fact that Coelho served as senior adviser to the Democratic National Committee the year the Democrats lost the House and Senate for the first time in half a century?

“I advised,” Coelho told the New York Times last week. “They didn’t take my advice.” When asked what that advice was, Coelho answered primly, “I never comment on private advice I give.” He was a bit less self-effacing at the time; in an interview with Lloyd Grove of the Washington Post one month before the fateful election, he made a great show of how bad he felt about eclipsing David Wilhelm, the departing Democratic National Committee chairman. “I know I have a big shadow,” he said. “I feel sorry for David–I think he got a bum rap.”

So what exactly was Coelho’s role in the Democrats’ Waterloo? Determined to get to the bottom of this, Chatterbox phoned former White House aide George Stephanopoulos. He said that Coehlo really did have minimal involvement. “He was basically a spokesperson,” Stephanopoulos said, “and did come by for several meetings.” Recommending what? Stephanopoulos couldn’t remember. “It could have been what a lot of us were saying, which was basically, ‘Try not to presidentialize the elections.’ ” Hmm. Is this the same George Stephanopoulos who told Grove back in 1994 that Coelho was “a strong voice at the table”?

Apparently Coelho wasn’t quite this forgettable at the time. “Tony was instrumental in the whole development of how to use the president’s time and where he goes, as well as resources and strategy,” then-White House political director Rahm Emanual told the New Republic’s Ruth Shalit in a 1995 article. “Tony was here on a regular basis,” said then-White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes. “I relied on him heavily. He was the first person to urge strongly that we take a hard look at the Republican contract and use it to frame the elections as a collision between Reaganomics and Clintonomics. He pushed hard on it. … He was key to our focusing on it.”

In a 1995 Washington Post Magazine profile by Marjorie Williams, a k a Mrs. Chatterbox (and Nathan Myhrvold’s partner in Slate’s “Book Club” this week), Coelho is described as being

among those who favored some of the creakiest, most familiar weapons in the Democratic arsenal. He scoffed at Newt Gingrich’s canny “Contract With America,” rejoicing that Gingrich had handed the Democrats a weapon–not because he saw it as a chance for Clinton to articulate an alternative vision, but because it offered a target in making narrow appeals to various Democratic interest groups. Use it with senior citizens, he urged Clinton, to charge that Republicans had a secret plan to gut Social Security; use it in Iowa, to buy off farmers by assuring them that farm subsidies were safer in Democratic than in Republican hands.

It would probably be unfair to blame a defeat as historic as 1994 entirely, or even largely, on Coelho’s strategy tips. Even the most damning evidence fingers Coelho as but one of several advisers (one of them, no doubt, Gore himself). Chatterbox recalls thinking, at the time, that voters would be appalled by the transparent irresponsibility of the Contract With America. Let him who is without smugness cast the first stone.

On the other hand, Coelho himself was not shy about assigning responsibility for the catastrophe a few days after the 1994 election–to his own patron, Bill Clinton! “I think it’s a question of understanding what the public wants,” he said. “He came in understanding that he was running against Washington, that Washington was the problem. And what’s happened is that he got trapped in Washington.” Mr. Vice President, watch your back.