In the bleak midwinter, Bill Clinton sits in the two-story garage out back, kneading memory into history. He scribbles his memoirs in longhand on legal pads, poring over notes and transcripts of his White House years. For the moment, this deadline is more pressing than raising money for India's earthquake victims or promoting peace in Northern Ireland or touring Miami nightclubs with Julio Iglesias. It is also lit by the incandescent question of the 2004 primary campaign: What does it mean to be a Democrat anymore? Having lost the White House and five straight House elections, does the party need to be burned down and rebuilt to have any hope of winning back the hearts and minds of a majority of the American people? Is the shadow Clinton casts over the field more imagined than real?
We know a legacy when we see one. Ronald Reagan not only changed the landscape while he was in office, but he also had fundamentally changed his party by the time he left, to the point that Bush the father lost by not being enough like Reagan while Bush the son won because he was. Now Clinton cannot pick up a newspaper without reading about some rejection of his free-trading, difference-splitting, soccer mom--wooing ways by candidates representing "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." "We're not going to beat George Bush by being Bush Lite," Howard Dean declared last week in Nashua, N.H. "The way to beat George Bush is to give the 50% of Americans who quit voting because they can't tell the difference between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party a reason to vote again." Take that, Triangulator in Chief.
But before Clinton gets too glum, chances are the phone will ring and it will be one of the candidates calling to pick his brain. They want to know how Clinton would campaign if he were up against this President Bush rather than the last one. The old playbook won't work anymore; the landscape is changed, and this George Bush is building a legacy of his own. Whatever their differences, Clinton is talking to all the candidates because, his friends say, they share one goal: ensuring another one-term Bush presidency.
And so Clinton is the ghost in all their political machines, massaging Dick Gephardt's message, editing John Edwards' speeches, matchmaking between Wesley Clark and the party rainmakers. If too much time passes between calls, friends say, Clinton gets a little peeved, like a mother wanting her kids to succeed when they head off to college, but not without her help. "He knows what they are going through," says a source who chats with Clinton often. "He has helped them think through their own strengths and weaknesses." But none of the Democrats can do that without first coming to grips with Clinton's, deciding what to borrow and what to bury.
Discouraged centrists, listening to the overture to the 2004 race, are worried that the party is tone-deaf and doesn't know it. Although Clinton was able to handle its multiple belief systems, going into this race there is nothing resembling harmony on anything from trade to taxes to the wisdom of going to war. "What the Democrats don't realize is that they aren't ready for an election, but the electoral clock is inexorable and so we're having one," says a former Clinton aide. "They think Bush-hating is a vision. It's not. There is no agreement about how to govern."