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How Players Remain Contenders


It's 9 o'clock on a busy weekday morning and the man standing on the corner of 16th and K streets, just a few blocks from the White House, is walking back and forth, scanning the block, looking for all the world as if he's lost something.

There's nothing too unusual in that, especially at this time of year, when the nation's capital is crammed with tourists. But a closer look reveals that this wandering man is no sightseer. He's Jack Kemp, former star quarterback, former US congressman, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and former (as in just last year) Republican candidate for vice president of the United States.

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And what Mr. Kemp can't find is his ride. "Since I lost the election," he says with a grin, "I lost my driver, too."

It's one of those telling moments in Washington - (a car from his office soon appears to rescue Kemp) that nonetheless capture the essence of something much larger. In this case, that something larger is the very elixir of capital life: power.

The trappings of power - the perks of it, the perception of it. Who's got power, who doesn't, who might have it again in the future. It's all part of the game in Washington, where winners and losers, lawyers and lobbyists, presidential wannabes and those who want to be with them, all mix in the delicate, rowdy game of politics and policymaking.

The most visible power here is elective - the kind of "by the people, for the people" clout wielded by the 537 people in this town who were sent to serve in Congress and the White House by American voters. But that still leaves plenty of power to go around, and plenty of people who want it.

The unelected players

"Washington is so sprawling and permeable," says Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institute in Washington. "There's more players running the government who are outside government than inside it. There are elaborate policy communities and networks of nonprofit and for-profit contractors who do the work of government.

"It's actually possible," he says, "to be very active, very engaged in the world of politics here without maintaining one's position as an elected member in it."

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The trick, of course - especially for politicians who've lost elective office - is finding a way to stay in the game. For some, that may mean developing a power base as a lobbyist who can offer access to lawmakers; for others, it might be starting a think tank as a forum to make sure their views continue to be heard. The latter has been a particularly popular tactic among Republicans in recent years - in contrast to the Kennedy years, says one Washington wag, when people who left office just "wanted to sit and reflect on it."

"One thing that helps," says journalist and Washington veteran David Broder, "is if people think that even though you're out of power, you may be a player in an active sense once again. The appearance of possible importance, even more than actual importance, can be a factor."

Kemp, who admits to presidential aspirations for the year 2000, is a case in point. His "lost driver" scenario underscores the fact that he's lost the perks of power, or potential power. A year ago, as vice-presidential nominee, he had a driver, not to mention a cadre of aides at his disposal.

Although Kemp has been out of elective office since 1989, he has continued to have a voice in Washington - first as a cabinet official in the Bush administration. Later through Empower America, a conservative think tank he co-founded in 1993, he helped influence the shaping of last year's Republican Party platform. ("But considering that the ticket lost," notes Michael Barone, editor of the Almanac of American Politics, "it was influence up to a point.")

Kemp has also carved out a niche as an influential and well-respected advocate of supply-side economics. Respected enough, in fact, that he recently spent half an hour at the White House, discussing the implications of pending budget legislation with President Clinton. And he remains a popular figure with the Washington press corps. The day after he met with Clinton, a roomful of reporters showed up to hear his views on Congress's current tax-cutting efforts.

"There are people who have something to say that's interesting, or provocative, or particularly thoughtful," says syndicated columnist Mark Shields, who has covered Washington for many years. "It's a lot easier for them to stay in the game, in the public debate."

For others, the road to power can be more like a looping figure 8 - heading away from Washington before returning years later. Former Republican Vice President Dan Quayle, a possible presidential contender in 2000, has spent most of his time outside of Washington, rallying party activists. It's a model that has worked in the past, most notably for Richard Nixon, who left Washington after losing to John F. Kennedy in 1960, only to return as president eight years later.

Mini-power posts

For those politicians not interested in regaining elective office - or not popular enough to run again - there are always mini-power positions like ambassadorships and chairmanships of government commissions. Former Democratic vice president Walter Mondale served as ambassador to Japan during Mr. Clinton's first term, a post that now appears likely to go to fellow Democrat and former House Speaker Tom Foley.

Through the whole power game, however, - elected or not, in or out - there is a crucial ingredient: the perception or appearance of potential power. It's an aura that rests on people like former Democratic Congressman Tom Downey, who lost his seat in 1992. Mr. Downey is a lobbyist, but he's also a close friend of Vice President Al Gore. Downey is widely considered to be a likely candidate for a top spot in a Gore administration if the vice president runs and wins in 2000.

In the end, the perception of power may be most important. As Haley Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, reminded senators while testifying in campaign finance reform hearings last week: In politics, "perception is reality."

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