The Clintonista Candidates

Gov. Janet Reno? Sen. Erskine Bowles? Rep. Rahm Emanuel?

American politics is clogged with Clintonistas. Four of Bill Clinton’s Cabinet secretaries are running for governor this year: ex-Attorney General Janet Reno in Florida, ex-Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo in New York, ex-Energy Secretary Bill Richardson in New Mexico, and ex-Labor Secretary Robert Reich in Massachusetts. Ex-White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles is wrestling Elizabeth Dole and others for the North Carolina Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Jesse Helms. Clinton consigliere Rahm Emanuel is bidding for a House seat in Chicago. And a gaggle of midlevel Clintonistas is running too. (Click here for details.)

Every administration graduates a few people to elective politics, but the size of the Clinton class is unprecedented. Only a handful of President George Bush’s aides ran in 1994—though that was a banner year for the Republicans. (Unlike the high-profile Clintonistas, the most prominent Bushies—Quayle adviser David McIntosh, who won a House race, and NIH Director Bernadine Healy, who lost a Senate race—were backbenchers.) The Reagan administration has spawned lots of candidates, including Elizabeth Dole, Alan Keyes, and Oliver North, but most waited at least four years before running. 

There are two explanations for the epidemic of Clintonian exes, one generous, one ungenerous, both true. The generous explanation is that the Clintonites want to finish what they started. The Clinton team formulated smart, successful public policies, especially domestically. They had a great run, but even after eight years they felt cut short by George W. Bush’s election. If they’re elected in 2002, they can try to preserve and expand the best ideas of the Clinton years. (That’s why it’s no surprise that almost all are running as Clinton-aping centrist Democrats.)

The ungenerous explanation is that what Republicans have always charged about the Clinton administration is true: It was the most political presidency in history. Most Republican Cabinet secretaries and top cats happily return to the private sector when they finish their official duties. But the Clinton administration, and the Democratic Party in general, was packed with people who live for politics and governing. You get the feeling that some of the Clintonista candidates are running because they can’t conceive of doing anything else. Cuomo, Richardson, Reno, and Emanuel have essentially never worked outside politics/government. Reich has been in politics or on its periphery his entire career, too. They could sooner stop eating than quit politics.

Most of the Clintonista candidates have distanced themselves from their old boss. There are two exceptions: Emanuel, running in the Clinton-country of Chicago, has imported Clinton for fund-raisers and endorsements; and Reich, running in Über-Democratic Massachusetts, has also tried to link himself to Bill. (There is a funny story about this.) But for others, Clinton the Man (as opposed to Clinton the Policies) remains poison, still defined by Lewinsky, pardons, and impeachment. Bowles, for example, seems to have filed a restraining order to keep Clinton away. North Carolina still detests Clinton, so Bowles pretends he was chief of staff to President Nobody. Clinton rates one mention—in passing—in Bowles’ biographical materials. According to Reno’s campaign bio, she became attorney general all by herself. New York still likes Clinton, but even Cuomo doesn’t risk much association with him. Cuomo’s Web site posts photos of him with two dozen celebrities, including Rosie O’Donnell, the NAACP’s Kweisi Mfume, Sens. Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden, actor Billy Baldwin, and Al Gore—but not Clinton. (This is amazing: Billy Clinton more toxic than Billy Baldwin? Didn’t any New Yorker see Sliver?)

Ideologically the candidates are similar enough, all mainstream, more-moderate-than-not Democrats. But what’s remarkable is how little they have in common otherwise. Stylistically, they are a jumble: The aggro Emanuel could not be less like the mild-mannered Bowles, who has zero in common with the irrepressible, professorial Reich, who bears no resemblance to the backslappy charmer Richardson.

Clinton’s critics have argued that he tried to be everything to everyone, and the variety of his heirs confirms that. They testify to Clinton’s own vastness. He was able to fold all of them into him. These candidates are Clinton, disaggregated. They are pieces of him. Each race will not be a referendum on Clinton. Each will be a referendum on one part of Clinton.

Reich, for example, shares the ultrawonky, policy-obsessive side of Clinton, the desire to stay up till 4 a.m. talking about the Earned Income Tax Credit. Cuomo and Emanuel share Clinton’s Type A-ness: the intensity, self-aggrandizement, excess of ambition, and genius for fund raising. Erskine Bowles represents the middle-of-the-road, New South, let’s-keep-our-heads-down-and-get-things-done moderation that Clinton fell back on whenever he got in trouble. Richardson shares the handshaking bonhomie and incredible charm (as well as the same question marks about trustworthiness and character).

Reno, who never got on with Clinton, shares least with him, but what she shares is still significant. She has Clinton’s gift for inspiring hate. She and Clinton are the most despised Democrats of the age. Cuban-Americans loathe her for Elián, libertarians for Waco, conservatives for her handling of the Clinton campaign-finance scandals. She, like Clinton, makes her rivals paranoid and frothing, and she, like Clinton, seems unruffled by this.

(So, which parts of Clinton will win? Richardson will take his race. Emanuel should, too. Bowles has even odds; Cuomo is a possibility. Reich is a long shot. Reno, the GOP’s dream opponent for Gov. Jeb Bush, is a longer one.)

But if you want to find the most Clintonian of the Clintonista candidates, you must drop a few levels in status and a generation in age. Andrei Cherny, a former Gore speechwriter, is running for state Assembly in California’s San Fernando Valley. Here we see Clintonism as Clinton practiced it. Cherny is only 26 years old, demonstrating that same alarming tyro ambition that Clinton showed. Cherny shares Clinton’s mania for policy and politics. He has already written a best-selling policy book, The Next Deal. He has the kind of campaign organization and endorsement list that would make a Senate candidate envious. His public statements have achieved that spinny, euphemistic glossiness it takes most politicians generations to master. Cherny can triangulate like the Champ, too, proposing stricter rules about probation, supporting charter schools, and—this is a hard one—favoring less traffic.

Cherny has the Clintonian genius for exaggeration and brazen self-promotion: He calls himself a “White House speechwriter” when he was a vice presidential speechwriter. (He also describes himself as the “youngest White House speechwriter in all of American history.” The “all” in that phrase is a perfect touch—redundant and shameless.) When Clinton said of Cherny in a speech, “I wish him well,” Cherny trumpeted it as a full-throated cheer for his campaign, calling the president’s anodyne sentence “enthusiastic … praise.” It is Cherny, not any of the famous Clintonista candidates, who is Clinton’s truest heir.