WASHINGTON — The Democrats are searching frantically for a leader - and Bill Clinton is raising his hand and saying, "Here I am." That's what his recent speech before the Democratic Leadership Council was all about - bidding to become the party's titular leader because, of course, he can't run for president again.
Sure, he talked about the need for the Democrats to strengthen their public image. But Mr. Clinton wasn't talking generally about image changing. He really was telling this group - all Democrats - that if they were to quit wandering in a wilderness of continuing defeat, they had better turn to someone strong to lead them. "Like me," he didn't quite say - but it was there.
Of course, the real candidates will be vying with Clinton for that national stage - and they may be able to quiet his voice with their own.
Also, Clinton's scandal never completely leaves him. The Washington Post's cartoonist, Tom Toles, on Dec. 5 depicted in a humorous way a Bill Clinton who, while speaking out and telling Democrats to listen to his advice, stirs up memories among his listeners of his personal indiscretions while president.
But maybe Clinton is what the party needs. Indeed, there's no one else - not yet, anyway. Howard Dean? Who's he? John Edwards? Richard Gephardt? Joseph Lieberman? Tom Daschle? John Kerry? Attractive men, yes. But none able to pull Democrats across the country behind them.
Yes, Al Gore might have become the party's leader. But his announcement that he will not run in '04 leaves the door more open for Clinton.
How popular is Clinton? Once again I called on the reliable pollster, John Zogby, for help. His answer: "Clinton's popularity dipped right after [he] left office. The pardons, you know. But he has pulled up since then to above 50 percent. That's a remarkable high percentage of popularity for an ex-president. He still is a very, very popular Democrat."
Yes, this is the same president who was impeached, who was diverted from effective leadership for months because of scandal.
But Democrats today - particularly those who have been hurt by the recession - remember the great economic times they experienced when Clinton was president. And they remember, too, how proud they were of a president who was so bright - and so eloquent.
So Clinton is reaching out again for power, to speak for Democrats nationally until a nominee for '04 is selected. If he makes it to center stage he again will be bolstered by having Hillary Clinton at his side - now a more powerful Hillary, a Senator, who may be ready to grasp the torch of national leadership herself. Of Senator Clinton's strong political position today, Mr. Zogby says: "There is not a doubt in my mind that she will run for president - in '04 if she sees a chance, certainly in '08."
Of Senator Clinton's popularity standing among her New York constituents, Zogby adds: "She starts out always with one-third of the public who hate her passionately and will never change. She won with 51 percent and with 46 percent unfavorable. But through hard work - and a showing of how intelligent she is - she has built up her favorable rating. She could do that in any state. Don't underestimate her chances on anything she's after - including the presidency."
But even the charismatic Bill Clinton may find it difficult to grasp and hold the titular-leader position. Indeed, I can't remember anyone attaining that position among his fellow Democrats since Adlai Stevenson after he lost the 1952 presidential race. Democrats truly loved Stevenson - "Madly Over Adlai" was a sign often seen at his political rallies. And he simply was a great speaker, one who reached such oratorical heights at times that infatuated fans would compare him to Winston Churchill. That sounds like overblown praise today. But it was true then.
Stevenson came as close as anyone I can remember to being viewed as the party's spokesman when the other party held the presidency - the person who would tell the world what his party believed in and where it intended to go.
But, one must add, after Stevenson was elevated to this unofficial role as spokesman, he once again was defeated by Eisenhower - and badly - in the following presidential election.