Posted on April 10, 2000 in Washington Watch

Recently, Vice President Al Gore took dramatic stands on two issues: campaign finance reform and the custody battle over Elian Gonzalez, the five-year-old Cuban boy who was shipwrecked and then rescued off the coast of Florida in November 1999. Unfortunately for the Vice President, for some voters, the net results of the two actions canceled each other out–harming more than helping his presidential campaign.

In addressing campaign finance reform, Gore was seeking to accomplish a number of objectives. Despite the well-known campaign finance irregularities that plagued the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign, in fact, Gore has been a long-time support of campaign reform. The problems of 1996, especially Gore’s fundraising visit to a California Buddhist Temple and the fundraising calls he made from his White House office, have threatened to haunt his 2000 campaign. It was in an effort to inoculate himself against these charges and to define himself as the champion of reform that Gore announced a set of sweeping proposals to reform the way political campaigns are funded.

In essence, the Vice President’s proposal would create a $7.1 billion endowment that would provide public funding for all federal elections. The goal is to remove fundraising from politics and, with that, to remove the abuses and attendant scandals inherent in the current system.

In all likelihood, the Vice-President’s proposals are too dramatic and challenge too many vested interests to be implemented. They will, for example, face stiff opposition from the very moneyed lobbyists whose influence these proposals seek to curb.

Nevertheless, the Vice President’s ideas will be debated and provide new ammunition with which to challenge the existing system. They will also enable Gore to shift public debate away from his 1996 problems and questions of his integrity, and focus attention, instead, on why his Republican opponent will not endorse sweeping changes to the current system.

The Republican nominee, George W. Bush, having ignored the existing campaign finance limits, has raised an unprecedented amount of money to fund his 2000 campaign. He, therefore, might be seen as vulnerable to attack on his issue.

Bush’ initial response to the Vice President’s proposal was a curt “he’ll do anything to get elected.” It sounded to some like a weak and whining retort.

While the Vice President appeared to be strengthened by the initial media coverage of his reform effort, it appears that he harmed himself by a second action on an unrelated matter. If his credibility was the issue Gore sought to reinforce, he did not help himself in the Elian Gonzalez affair.

For more than four months now, Americans have been wrestling with the saga of little Elian, a five-year-old Cuban boy whose mother and step-father drowned at sea while trying to escape Cuba to bring Elian to the United States.

Elian was rescued from the sea after being alone and afloat for 40 hours. He immediately became a cause celebre among Florida’s one million Cuban émigré community–many of whom are active in the anti-Castro movement.

Elain was brought to the home of his uncle, who pledged that the little boy would never return to Cuba. After Elian’s biological father (still in Cuba) asked that the boy be returned and Fidel Castro began mobilizing Cubans to demand that the United States return Elian, the cause truly exploded in the United States.

The Clinton Administration has reacted cautiously. The Justice Department and the President have maintained that the matter be resolved in the courts according to existing immigration law. On two separate occasions, the courts have ruled that Elian be reunited with his father. (In an almost identical case, decided last week Florida courts reunited a Jordanian boy with his Jordanian-American father and allowed them both to return to Jordan.) These decisions, however, enraged the Cuban American community and Elian’s family has continued to appeal to higher courts.

During the Republican primary process, that party’s many candidates rather crassly exploited the issue, at times, escalating their criticism of the Administration and pledging that if they were in charge, Elian would immediately be granted citizenship and be allowed to remain in the United States. When some Republicans found that their position ran contrary to their professed support for “family values,” they added that Elian’s father should also be given citizenship and be allowed to come to the United States.

The exploitation of Elian has been shameless–U.S. media, the Cuban Americans, the politicians and the Cuban government–can all be blamed.

At present, there is a bill before Congress that seeks to override the court decisions and grant Elian citizenship. The bill is given little chance of succeeding because opposition to the over-politicization of Elian’s case is widespread among more thoughtful lawmakers in both parties.

When Vice President Gore announced last week that he was breaking with his own Administration and would now support the congressional bill to give Elian citizenship, many Democrats were shocked. Some viewed it as an effort to court Cuban American voters–an important bloc that can be critical in winning elections in Florida (the U.S.’s fourth largest state). One Gore supporter, Congressman Jose Serrano (Democrat, New York) said “I understand that he’s trying to get voters in Miami, but he should not do this at the expense of the child.” Serrano threatened not to go to the Democratic convention.

Another angry Congresswoman Maxine Waters (Democrat, California) initially threatened to “reconsider my endorsement of Mr. Gore if he takes this political position.” She later recanted this threat, but still noted her displeasure at the Vice President’s stance.

What angered these Democrats is that other ethnic and racial groups do not get the same preferential treatment accorded to Cubans and that even, with Gore’s decision, the Cuban Americans will, as they normally do, vote Republican.

After a day of negative media, Gore sought to elaborate and clarify his views. First he claimed that he had not changed his position, that he had always maintained that the case should not be resolved by the federal courts. Gore added “if the father says on free soil that the son should to back to Cuba–then he should be allowed to take him home”. He made no further mention of the proposed legislation. For some analysts this added confusion, not clarity to the situation.

After the most recent court ruling, the U.S. Department of Justice asked the Gonzalez family to commit to voluntarily surrender the boy to officials if they lose their appeal. The family not only refused to make this commitment, but thousands of Cuban Americans took to the street to surround the Gonzalez house. They pledged to break the law and deny any federal officials access to the boy. To make matters worse, the Cuban American Mayor of Miami-Dade County has said that he would not order Miami’s policy to enforce the law and stop the protestors. This, in effect put the Cuban Americans and Miami outside of the jurisdiction of the federal government–a serious situation fraught with dangerous implications.

In this context, Vice President Gore’s decision to break with the Administration and support the Cuban Americans has added a number of complications to his November election plans. As Gore strategists admit, it indicates that Gore is serous about contesting Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush for Florida’s 25 electoral voters. Beltway observers, however, doubt that Gore’s move will sway many Cuban American voters and may cause a loss of some other supporters. Nevertheless, the Bush campaign will now probably expend a little more effort in Florida, a state they had hoped to win easily–since George W. Bush’s brother, Jeb, is the Governor of the state.

Secondly, there is no doubt that Gore’s confusing stance on the Gonzales case has alienated or confounded many of his strong Democratic supporters and is being decried by Republicans as pandering for Cuban American votes. In the process has this made Gore vulnerable to the very charge from which he has sought to escape–that “he will do anything to get elected.” This is what Gore’s Democratic rival, Bill Bradley, said of him during the Democratic primaries. It is what Republican are now saying.

In order to strengthen his Democratic base and win over undecided votes, Gore must take stands that enhance his credibility and integrity.

His decision to propose radical reform of the way political campaigns are funded was part of this effort. The decision to undercut the courts and his own Administration in the Gonzales case, has at least, for some voters reopened the credibility file Gore has been working hard to close.

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