It was the fall of 1994, and President Clinton's health-care reform plan was on life support. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes hated the TV ads produced by media consultant Mandy Grunwald. He made that painfully clear during an expletive-laced rant at an aide to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. "He popped his cork," shrugs a colleague. "But that's Harold."
Mr. Personality, he's not. Nor is his track record all that great. Since joining the White House in January, 1994, Ickes has fumbled the three major tasks he has been assigned. He couldn't control damage from the Whitewater probe. He failed to win passage of health reform. And he oversaw the President's disastrous midterm election strategy.
"HARDHEADED." Ickes acknowledges the failures. "Three strikes and you're out?" he chuckles in an interview in his White House office. Not exactly. Rather, Ickes has drawn his toughest assignment from the President yet: getting the boss re-elected. Why Ickes? Colleagues say the blunt, no-nonsense adviser offsets Clinton's lack of focus and follow-through and is a master at building political coalitions. Says Democratic consultant Robert Shrum: "He's a very effective operative, and he will plan a practical, hardheaded, and systematic campaign."
The White House doesn't hold Ickes, 55, personally responsible for his performance to date. Insiders say he signed on too late to contain Whitewater or save a flawed health plan, and that the midterm bloodbath was too big to lay at one person's feet. They point to his savvy in running Clinton's 1992 New York primary campaign and the party convention. Most important, he's one of the few aides that both Clintons trust totally. "They see him as the ultimate loyalist," says one adviser.
But loyalty will get Ickes only so far. His organizational talents will guarantee a good nuts-and-bolts campaign, but Ickes hasn't helped Clinton find a message that resonates with voters. While a Mar. 16-19 Washington Post-ABC News poll indicates that the President has made progress in portraying himself as an ally of the middle class, that hasn't broadened his base much beyond the 43% who voted for him in 1992.
How to make up the ground? The lesson from the midterm rout, Ickes says, was that the GOP developed a clear message of what it stood for--smaller government--and repeated it relentlessly. Now, Clinton hopes to counter the GOP with his own mantra. "One of the main points will be, has the President started to move the country in the right direction?" Ickes says.
One of Ickes' main tasks is to head off a primary challenge. His first step: build up a campaign war chest. While the campaign committee won't be set up for several weeks, Ickes has helped select its only officer, finance director Terence R. McAuliffe, who vows to raise $25 million this year.
Ickes also hopes to rehabilitate the debt-ridden Democratic National Committee. In December, he persuaded Clinton to appoint Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and South Carolina committeeman Donald L. Fowler as DNC co-chairs--a decision that drew criticism within the party. Next, he's helping the DNC match the Republican Party's grassroots operation and communications capabilities.
LIBERAL BENT. Ickes seeks to rebuild the party by reaching out to groups--organized labor, women, and minorities--that feel abandoned by Clinton's shifts to the right. His experience as a labor lawyer with close ties to civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, not to mention his liberal leanings, will help. He lobbied Clinton to sign an order barring federal contractors from hiring replacements for strikers, arguing that it would appeal to angry blue-collar workers. He also has asked Cabinet members to assemble a list of pro-women programs for Clinton to tout.
Such directives likely will fuel criticism from centrist Democrats that Ickes will only reinforce Clinton's liberal instincts--at a time the President needs to be aggressively courting the center. Indeed, mobilizing liberals while reaching out to moderates will be Ickes' toughest--some say impossible--challenge. He thinks he can pull it off. But one more strike, and this ball game probably is over.
-- SOLIDIFY DEMOCRATIC BASE around such issues as striker replacement, breast-cancer research, nutrition programs, and family leave.
-- BUILD BRIDGES to moderates by promoting job training, college-tuition tax breaks, and education.
-- BOOST CLINTON'S IMAGE by describing policies as people-friendly while tarring Republican policies as extreme and heartless.
-- TARGET KEY STATES for White House benefits. California will get lots of aid, and long shots like Georgia will get early attention.
-- FORESTALL A PRIMARY CHALLENGE with early fund-raising and organizing presence in New Hampshire and Iowa.