The lesson of Bob Torricelli's exit.

Politics and policy.
Sept. 30 2002 7:29 PM

The Torricelli Principle

If you don't want an election to be about you, get out.

Late Monday afternoon, Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., pulled the plug on his re-election campaign. It was a merciful end. Torricelli's career had been brain-dead ever since the Senate Ethics Committee admonished him for accepting expensive gifts from a campaign contributor and trying to cover it up. For weeks, Torricelli had insisted that his campaign wasn't about Bob Torricelli. But there was only one way to make that statement true: by getting rid of Bob Torricelli. Eventually, that conclusion was so clear that even Torricelli got it.

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In the contest between Torricelli and his Republican challenger, Doug Forrester, there was frequent debate about the Torricelli Principle, an obscure rule (named after the then-congressman) having to do with the recruitment of shady characters by U.S. intelligence agencies. But in the wake of Torricelli's withdrawal, the principle for which he might more suitably be remembered is the one he illustrated in his final campaign: When you're reduced to pleading that the election isn't about you, it's time to get out.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The latest reports had Torricelli trailing Forrester, a virtual unknown, by 13 points in public polls and by 20 points in Torricelli's internal campaign surveys. In New Jersey, a state that hasn't elected a Republican senator in 30 years, that's hard to do. How did Torricelli manage it? By combining the worst of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Al D'Amato.

The Clinton part was obvious: Torricelli had been caught in a series of ethical lapses and refused to own up to them in more than a technical sense. He called them mistakes; he described their occurrence in the passive voice; he urged voters to "move on" to other issues. At the press conference announcing his withdrawal, Torricelli said he and Clinton had talked on the phone earlier in the day, recalling "all the times I went to the White House and told him in the darkest days that what I admired about him was that you never give up. … I admire that man so much." Alluding to Clinton's survival of impeachment, Torricelli concluded, "I apologize to Bill Clinton that I did not have his strength."

Maybe Torricelli's offenses weren't inherently fatal. Maybe if Clinton had been in Torricelli's shoes, he could have survived. But Torricelli didn't have Clinton's personality. He had Gore's. He accused Forrester of "risky schemes" and talked endlessly about fighting. "So many years and so many fights," he recalled fondly at Monday's press conference. Like Gore, Torricelli spoke like a caricature of a senator, arranging pauses and facial expressions to milk every line for effect. Like Gore, he seemed relentlessly scripted. Like Gore, he looked as though he was lying even when he was telling the truth.

To Clinton's and Gore's faults, Torricelli added a local flavor: the annoying greasiness of former New York Sen. Al D'Amato. Like Torricelli, D'Amato spoke in a sanctimonious whine. Like Torricelli, he gave off the constant odor of a little man trying to be big. For years, his coarseness and cynicism embarrassed New Yorkers. After three terms, they decided they'd had enough. "Too many lies for too long" was the slogan that drove him from office. New Jerseyans were getting similarly tired of Torricelli. Forrester loved to remind them that Torricelli had been in Congress for 20 years and that New Jersey was becoming "the butt of national jokes."

Torricelli had something else in common with Gore. Politically, he held the upper hand on the issues. Most New Jerseyans are liberal on abortion, gun control, prescription drug coverage, and the environment. Torricelli kept pointing out that he, not Forrester, shared those positions. But no matter what Torricelli said, it was overshadowed by the fact that the person saying it was Torricelli. At every campaign stop, Forrester introduced himself with the words, "Hi, I'm Doug Forrester. I'm the guy running against Bob Torricelli."

Torricelli is an accomplished talker. He loves the sound of his own voice. For weeks, he tried to talk his way around the problem, insisting that the election wasn't about him. The election wasn't really between Bob Torricelli and Doug Forrester, he argued; it was between Forrester and everybody else. As talking goes, it was good spin. But sometimes talking isn't enough. Sometimes you have to make your spin true by doing something real and costly.

In the weeks before he bowed out, Torricelli talked a lot about current or recent New Jersey senators. Bill Bradley, Frank Lautenberg, Jon Corzine—they were all suitably liberal on abortion, guns, and the environment, said Torricelli. It was one of those campaign lines that come into existence for reasons that belie their advertised meaning. Torricelli was trying to say that Bradley and Lautenberg were like him. But the reason he had to talk about them was that they weren't. Unlike Torricelli, they were clean. Unlike Torricelli, they could beat Forrester. Now maybe one of them will.

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