Harvard professor tries to help Gore run in the center

By Jill Zuckman, Globe Staff, 7/18/2000

ASHVILLE - As Al Gore's campaign policy director, Elaine Kamarck has had to get awfully good at saying no.

As in, no to a big-money universal health care plan; no to privatizing Social Security, and no to the policy geeks arguing over block grants versus challenge grants.

One of the original architects of the New Democrats, a movement in which Gore has long been a leader, Kamarck has regularly found herself defending the centrist in Gore against the expansive temptations of the campaign trail.

''I'm sure there are times the political people think I'm a fuddy-duddy old professor and times the policy people think I'm just a whore,'' said Kamarck, in her typically blunt fashion.

A veteran of the Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Bruce Babbitt presidential campaigns, Kamarck, a Harvard University professor, oversees and distills the advice of an unwieldy platoon of policy specialists from coast to coast, as well as in the White House and on Capitol Hill. She also finds herself occasionally butting heads with the political consultants focused more on strategy than the substance of governing, as Texas Governor George W. Bush moves to the political center.

Kamarck's success in tailoring Gore's policy views reflects her long working relationship with the vice president and her keen understanding of how his mind works. But she is hardly without rivals for the candidate's ear, and her occasional battles within the campaign for policy primacy provide a window on how Gore prefers to make decisions.

Gore believes in creative tension among his advisers, refereeing the clashing views of various aides. He does not like to invest any one person with the power to control how information gets to him and how his options are framed.

That can complicate life for Kamarck. For example, while preparing Gore's health care plan during the primaries, she discovered that campaign image-meisters Carter Eskew and Robert Shrum were secretly preparing an alternative speech in which the vice president would call for universal health care immediately, eschewing Kamarck's incremental approach to that goal.

Kamarck, alarmed, went directly to Gore, and Gore chose to stick with the go-slow approach despite concerns that Bill Bradley's more sweeping health care initiative might be more appealing to Democratic primary voters. But the vice president did tell his aides to find a way for him to insure every child right away.

''I was very proud we got through the primaries as a New Democrat,'' said Kamarck. ''Gore was able to win the support of the AFL-CIO without changing his position on trade, and he got the support of the teachers despite calling for accountability, teacher testing, and [curbs on] tenure.''

Warm, effusive

Another time, as Gore was preparing to go to Boston to deliver a foreign policy address, Kamarck found that much of the substantive discussion about the need for Western investments in sub-Saharan Africa had been dropped in favor of what she considered meaningless political rhetoric. Sources said Kamarck, Leon Fuerth, Gore's national security adviser, and the political consultants were all doing battle over what Gore should say, how he should say it, and whose written draft he should work from.

The night before he was to deliver his speech to the International Press Institute's World Congress, Gore, on Air Force Two, sifted through his advisers' recommendations and wrote the speech himself, sources said.

As one of only two high-powered women in a thoroughly male-dominated campaign, Kamarck is frequently described by her colleagues as having a potent personality that can rub some the wrong way. But she can also be warm and effusive.

''She is one of those people who understands the importance of ideas in politics,'' said Al From, president of the centrist oriented Democratic Leadership Council. ''In the Gore campaign, she has to go through a lot of battles. Most of those consultants don't have the appreciation for ideas that she has.''

During a recent trip to Nashville, Gore met with Kamarck and asked her to explore a half-dozen ideas he wanted to learn more about. In Memphis the next day, Gore met again with Kamarck, as well as with Fuerth, to talk about defense policy for his commencement address at West Point.

Last winter, when Gore was campaigning in New Hampshire, Kamarck frequently drove from Boston to meet him. During the long motorcade rides from one campaign event to another, Kamarck and Gore would talk about pension reform and other hot topics. Now that he is crisscrossing the country, Kamarck and Gore frequently communicate by fax and conference call, or she meets him in the city du jour.

''The vice president has placed a lot of trust in Elaine in the policy arena,'' said Eskew, who is responsible for crafting Gore's campaign message.

Kamarck, who is on leave from the Kennedy School of Government until the end of the year, said she views her job as protecting the integrity of the policies that Gore adopts, which sometimes means she has to be on the lookout for end-runs by advisers with other priorities.

''I catch them every time,'' said Kamarck. ''Nothing gets by me.''

She is also responsible for assembling the right specialists to shape proposals and help Gore make decisions. She keeps track of the total cost of all his proposals, and she says she tries to stop political lingo from swamping substance.

If defending the New Democrat core of Gore means showing up uninvited for debate prep sessions with the candidate, Kamarck has done that, too.

''I make sure he knows what he needs to know,'' she said.

Elaine Ciulla Kamarck, 49, grew up in Rochester, New York, the Italian-American daughter of staunch Democrats. Her career in politics began early while she was researching her dissertation on how state primary election rules affect presidential strategy.

Need for change

During the Carter campaign, Kamarck served as the resident rules specialist at the Democratic National Committee, where she ran the rules fight and the platform fight against Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Carter's primary opponent. For Mondale, Kamarck was the chief delegate counter. And for Babbitt, Kamarck worked as the deputy campaign manager.

But it was during Mondale's campaign that Kamarck began to realize that the Democratic Party needed to change. As Mondale appealed to every traditional voting group, from labor unions to minority groups to teachers, voters walked away in droves.

''We played to every constituency and we lost everything,'' she said.

Even Kamarck's Italian immigrant relatives - many of them members of labor unions - were turned off.

''Ethnics were leaving the party saying, `Bye-bye, you don't speak for us,''' she recalled.

By 1989, Kamarck had signed on as a visiting scholar at the Democratic Leadership Council's think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute. She and William A. Galston, a professor at the University of Maryland, coauthored what became a groundbreaking examination of why Democrats couldn't seem to win the White House.

''The Politics of Evasion'' pointed out that Americans viewed the Democratic Party as ''inattentive to their economic interests, indifferent if not hostile to their moral sentiments and ineffective in defense of their national security.'' Using polling data, Kamarck and Galston discredited the notion that candidates who lost were just not liberal enough.

The reaction among many Democrats was angry and intense.

''It was scary,'' said Kamarck. ''It was frightening. We had just given the Democratic Party a cold shower and they didn't like it.''

Nevertheless, the manifesto became ''the bible for the Clinton campaign,'' said From, the Democratic Leadership Council president.

Then-Governor Bill Clinton asked Kamarck to serve as his presidential campaign manager. But that was one campaign that Kamarck, who was living in New York at the time, decided she had to skip. Her three children were young and in school. She could not justify moving them to Arkansas, and she could not imagine commuting between home and campaign headquarters, either.

''It was one of the hardest conversations I ever had,'' she said.

But Kamarck's absence from the political arena was short-lived. Once Clinton and Gore were elected, Kamarck was brought on board as Gore's main policy adviser. Not long after that, she was given principal responsibility for running the administration's ''Reinventing Government'' effort.

When her husband, Martin Kamarck, took a job in Boston, Kamarck left the administration for a teaching post at Harvard. Still, she continued advising Gore.

So when the time came for Gore to make his own bid for the White House, it seemed only natural that he would have Elaine Kamarck at his side.