WASHINGTON -- Behind the appointment of former House Majority Whip Tony Coelho as an unpaid "senior adviser" to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is a White House desire, according to party insiders, to "vet" Coelho publicly in anticipation of putting him in charge of President Clinton's 1996 re-election campaign.
For some time now, Coelho has acted as an unofficial political adviser to the Clinton White House, getting high marks as a savvy and politically astute operative. Before his friend Leon Panetta got the job of White House chief of staff, there was speculation that Coelho might be tapped for it.
The problem, these insiders say, is the circumstance under which Coelho left Congress in 1989, retiring amid allegations of using political influence for personal profit, which he steadfastly denied, and about which a Justice Department investigation was conducted and later dropped.
The White House has been concerned, the insiders say, that a major appointment for Coelho would invite renewed press scrutiny that, fairly or not, would add fuel to the questions about ethical standards that have already hit the Clinton White House.
The notion in sending Coelho to the DNC in a job that clearly involves politics, as opposed to substantive governing policies, apparently is to see how Coelho weathers the Washington re-entry.
"The idea," according to one insider, "is to vet him, to get him into the mix, let the press go at him on the ethical stuff and see how it works."
The move was intended to be a low-profile one, but that objective was upset by the angry reaction of Democratic National Chairman David Wilhelm in declaring at the same time that he would quit his job after the November elections.
Wilhelm had already been under fire from some congressional Democrats for television ads prepared by others but approved by him to pressure specific Democratic senators like Bob Kerrey in his home state of Nebraska and Herb Kohl in Wisconsin to support the Clinton health care reforms. The Coelho appointment appeared to be the last straw for Wilhelm.
One interesting aspect of the political shake-up that is sending Coelho to the DNC and sending Wilhelm out the door after the November elections is the suggestion that the DNC is the center VTC of political brainstorming in the Clinton administration. It has been axiomatic in Washington politics for years that when one party controls the White House, its national committee and chairman are reduced essentially to political housekeeping, with the real political power being held guardedly at the White House itself.
That certainly was true in the George Bush administration, wherein White House chief of staff John Sununu kept a tight rein on political decisions as long as he lasted in that job.
In the Ronald Reagan administration, White House chief of staff James A. Baker III did likewise; and successor Donald Regan tried to do the same, but his ineptitude got in the way.
In recent Democratic administrations it had been the same, with White House chief of staff Hamilton Jordan largely in the political driver's seat in the Jimmy Carter administration and President Lyndon B. Johnson himself personally calling the key political shots during his tenure in the Oval Office.
Only when a party has been out of power and a political vacuum has existed at the top has the party chairmanship been seen as the political power center, along with the party's congressional leadership.
Thus, Ray Bliss of Ohio was a strong "nuts and bolts" Republican chairman charged with putting the party apparatus back on its feet after the Barry Goldwater debacle of 1964, and Larry O'Brien, the old Kennedy political mechanic, took over the Democratic National Committee as it geared up to challenge President Richard M. Nixon in 1970-1972.
The Clinton White House early on relied on outsiders such as 1992 campaign strategists James Carville and Paul Begala for political direction, and then early this year brought in Harold Ickes as deputy chief of staff with politics in his portfolio.
But Ickes has been inundated with health care and Whitewater; hence the new Coelho role in the sanctuary of the DNC, with the 1996 campaign job reportedly in the offing if all goes well.