On a recent Thursday morning, not long after the Amadou Diallo verdict, Al Gore stopped by New York City's P.S. 163 to talk up his education proposals. Anti-Gore elves had been up early, stacking "Ask Al Gore" leaflets on tables at the entrance: "If you want to know how African Americans became identified ... as violent, gun-toting threats to society, ask Al Gore about his 1988 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Ask him what he said to Dukakis in the New York debate. Ask him how this was later picked up by the George Bush campaign as the 'Willie Horton' case."
This was supposed to be Bill Bradley's turf. Where else would his message resonate more than here, at an integrated public school at the intersection of the famously affluent-but-leftish Upper West Side and Harlem, where anger over the death of an unarmed black immigrant has lately boiled over into spontaneous, multiracial street protests?
No one seems to have told Gore this. He strides confidently into a student-free classroom overstuffed with reporters, teachers, parents (most of them black), and those local Democratic dignitaries who've survived into the lean Giuliani years--most notably Public Advocate Mark Green, who grins a little too broadly when someone yells, "The next mayor!" Gore delivers a precise barrage of small- and medium-bore education proposals, among them more teacher training, increased federal funding for school construction and $10,000 hiring bonuses, a tripling of special-ed funding, and universal preschool. He makes no mention of Diallo or racial justice. Nobody seems to mind.
"I think Al Gore is doing a fine job," remarks Tina McRae, a black P.S. 163 parent. What about racism, discrimination, I ask? "Without education, we're all lost," she says coolly. "I know that once my son has the proper education, racism will not be an issue. Al Gore offers us--Americans-- a full package."
Elaine Kamarck couldn't have put it any better. "Al Gore won, overwhelmingly, the minority votes in the primary," she says, sitting in her office at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government a few days after Super Tuesday. "He won the hardcore base of the party on his own centrist message and, in the case of welfare reform, defending the administration."
Though February's lowest-ever turnout doesn't exactly convey tidal waves of grass-roots enthusiasm for the Gore candidacy, Gore's wide margins among precisely those Old Democratic constituencies that Bradley made his business are, at any rate, good enough reason for Kamarck to crow. To the extent that Clintonism--which at this date is, roughly, Goreism--has a founding manifesto, it is Kamarck's 1989 paper "The Politics of Evasion," which argued that in order to win back the White House, the Democratic Party had to cleanse itself of "liberal fundamentalism." In practice, this meant ignoring or downplaying the putatively narrow demands of core Democratic constituencies, a purging that proceeded apace when Bill Clinton--backed by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), of which Kamarck is a co-founder--won the nomination and then the presidency in 1992. After brief flirtations with old-fashioned social liberalism and economic populism early in his first term, Clinton morphed into an ardent free-trader and fiscal conservative, signed into law the 1996 welfare reform, and crafted a rhetoric aimed squarely at moderate, middle-class voters. Kamarck, meanwhile, presided quietly over the Gore policy brain trust, taking on some of the more emblematic New Democrat projects of the early Clinton years. Early in the first administration, Kamarck headed Gore's quintessentially wonky reinventing government project; later, she served on the administration's welfare reform task force, before decamping to Harvard in 1997.
But Kamarck isn't in Cambridge much these days--in fact, when I first called her office, someone else was using it. Back on active duty since November, Kamarck logged her share of time on the campaign trail this winter, "bouncing around," as one reporter puts it, "sitting in the audience like an appreciative mother." Her official title is something like Senior Domestic Policy Adviser to the Vice President, but no one on the campaign seems to know offhand. Like most inner-circle types, she is too fundamental to Gore 2000 for her actual title to convey anything meaningful.
Neither Gore's shellacking of Bradley nor seven-and-a-half years of a Democratic White House seemed to have changed Kamarck's sense of the task at hand. "Not at all," she says, when I ask her if Gore's election strategy will look any different from Clinton's. "We have won twice. We have won twice on the general thrust of the 'Politics of Evasion,' and I think we'll win again."
Which is why she and Donna Brazile, Gore's current campaign manager, make for a rather odd couple. Brazile, a renowned political brawler and thrifty boss--most staffers credit Brazile's own brand of fiscal conservatism with, appropriately, saving the Gore campaign--does not quite fit the New Democrat mold. A founding member of the National Political Congress of Black Women, Brazile is a devotee and onetime campaign aide of Jesse Jackson--the marquee victim of Bill Clinton's tactic, during the 1992 campaign, of shearing "liberal fundamentalists" from the Democratic fold. Brazile worked not only on Jackson's 1984 campaign, but also as a deputy field manager for the 1988 presidential run of Michael Dukakis, the last of the Democrats' line of (in the New Democrat world view) disastrous northern liberal candidates. And whereas Kamarck joined the White House in 1993, Brazile spent most of the Clinton years working for D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who is more a traditional Democrat than a reinvented one.
Neither Brazile's combative joie de vivre nor her pre-Clinton political stylings seem to have dissipated--at least, not judging from two recent and now-famous interviews. In January, Brazile told Bloomberg.com that Republicans "bring out Colin Powell and J.C. Watts because they have no program, no policy" and would "rather take pictures with black children than feed them." And two months before that, Brazile sent a few arrows thudding into the hull of the good ship New Democrat, telling The Washington Post that--pace the DLC--"the four pillars of the Democratic Party are African Americans, labor, women, and what I call other ethnic minorities." Mere hours later came the DLC's prim, angry blast-fax. "This 'base constituency group' strategy was central to the failed Democratic presidential campaigns of the 1980s," read a "DLC Update" the day after the Post interview. "We hope Donna Brazile's sketch of the 'pillars' of Democratic strength does not represent the genuine blueprint for the Vice President's campaign."
Officially, of course, it doesn't. It is Kamarck's job to keep the Gore policy shop; it is Brazile's job to keep Gore from losing, as he seemed in danger of doing right around the time Brazile was promoted from deputy to campaign manager last October. If, as one Gore campaign aide puts it, "Elaine is the baker and Carter [Eskew] is the decorator" of the exactingly homogenized confection that is Gore 2000, Donna may be said to supervise the delivery trucks and run the comptroller's office. For the record, Brazile and Kamarck also seem to get along quite nicely. "Oh, I love her," Kamarck tells me. "See, when I go to Nashville, I stay at her apartment. And then when we're on the road, we're always roommates because, under the Donna Austerity Plan, nobody gets to have a hotel room to themselves."
Still, there's a sense in which Donna and Elaine, roommates, make an apt synecdoche for the path Gore has taken through the Democratic primaries. Gore, like Clinton, has always had a contentious relationship with those organized constituencies that make up the putative Old Democrats. Partly this is because of serious differences of political opinion: Gore's October endorsement by the AFL-CIO, for instance, was less a group hug than a reflection of the group's belief that, in a four-candidate race featuring four free-traders, the devil you know (Gore) is better than the devil you don't (Bradley) [see Harold Meyerson, "Union Man," page 18]. And even Kamarck, though she insists that "'Old' versus 'New' is kind of an old fight," concedes that "there's a tension there, obviously, and we've seen it erupt at various times during the campaign."
But the problem goes deeper than mere policy. The Clinton-Gore, DLC-derived message has traditionally been designed for and targeted at the Democratic Party's only unorganized constituency, the much-slavered-over Middle-Class Voters. The New Democrats' meteoric rise, moreover, was never linked to any realignment of the Old Democratic base; the whole DLC project was created and driven by wonks like Kamarck--elite Beltway policy makers with more experience among the bookshelves than at the barricades. As one Gore staffer puts it, "The New Democrat argument doesn't have a natural constituency. You have to bring it to where the people are."
This just happens to be one of Brazile's strengths. "She started out at the grass roots, at the most local level," says Jehmu Greene, a friend of Brazile's and director of Women's Outreach at the Democratic National Committee. "And if you look at her career, she's had experience from the bottom to the top." This is in marked contrast to much of the old campaign staff, who tended to be transplants from Gore's White House operation. Indeed, until Brazile came into the picture, the Gore campaign looked a lot like the DLC in miniature: Beltway-based, well-funded, and perilously top-heavy with pollsters, advisers, consultants, and other "whores" (as Brazile described them, perhaps uncharitably, to the Post).
In fact, the post-Brazile shake-up so widely ridiculed as superficial--move the headquarters to Nashville, change the stationery--was actually quite profound. Among those jettisoned from the senior staff were New Dem operative and former DLC pollster Mark Penn, who as recently as 1998 wrote that "[t]he old platitude that Democrats had to run to the left in the primaries to placate their base is contradicted by the realization that there is a new Democratic Party rank-and-file." Brazile not only cut back salaries, staff, and expenses, but fundamentally reoriented the campaign precisely toward the old Democratic rank and file--not the moderate suburbanites the DLC today claims as its base, but unions, women's groups, urban blacks, gays, and other erstwhile fundamentalists. Brazile even brokered a quiet meeting with Al Sharpton, causing more than a few shudders over in New Democrat territory and, Sharpton not being a very popular guy outside the black community, in lots of other territories as well. "Frankly, it made me a little uncomfortable," says Kamarck, "because Sharpton has such a"--here she grimaces-- "flamboyant history. But, you know, Gore's gonna meet with a lot of people on this campaign."
Sharpton, of course, could well turn out to be the Republican answer to Bob Jones this fall. (The Sharpton visit "wasn't on the official schedule," as one Gore staffer puts it. "That definitely surprised a lot of people.") But what's truly surprising is how little any of this ostensible pandering seems to have hurt Gore; according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll from mid-March, Gore has gained nine points against the formerly invincible George W. Bush since Brazile took over in October.
"The DLC was wrong," says Robert Borosage, issues director for Jackson's 1988 campaign and currently head of the liberal group Campaign for America's Future. Neither Gore nor any other Democrat, Borosage maintains, can win without energizing the party's much-maligned base. "[Brazile] was totally right about the democratic process, and she was totally right about how you run in the primary. She not only brought energy to a campaign that was weighed down with lobbyists and assorted hangers-on, but also a person with a clear strategic view who could count."
This is not to say that Gore has strayed too far from his roots. To some extent, as Kamarck and other staffers have argued, Gore spent the primary season defending the New Democrat agenda and the administration's record. ("To talk at the Apollo about welfare reform," one campaign staffer says pointedly, "is a very New Democrat message.") Fiscal conservatism is the bedrock of Gore's economic policy. And many of Clinton's core DLC-inspired policies remain central to Gore's own agenda, particularly his Republican-tough stance on crime, continued support for welfare reform, and preference for tax credits like the EITC over entitlements.
But if Brazile has been successful at bringing Gore's New Democrat message to the Old Democrats, perhaps that's because the New Democrat message circa 2000 is rather different from the New Democrat message circa 1989. The same Al From who used to rail against Democrats obsessed with the sociocultural fringe recently sent a letter of support to the Human Rights Campaign, the country's most prominent gay advocacy organization. Social Security privatization and Medicare voucherization, DLC causes célèbres for years, have more or less been chucked from the Democratic playbook; raising the minimum wage has emerged as a key administration goal. Candidate Gore has steadfastly opposed school vouchers, a favorite of many New Democrats and perhaps the one issue on which Gore and the DLC most clearly part ways. "What's interesting so far is not the extent of the DLC policy frame, but how Gore has made things that the DLC has campaigned against the center of his campaign," says Borosage. "He started the campaign with all this nonsense about car phones and suburban sprawl. And if you look at what he's saying now, he's talking about saving Social Security and his opposition to vouchers. Those aren't DLC positions."
But just as the New Democrats of today are not quite the New Democrats of yesterday, the Democratic Party that now backs Gore doesn't look much like the one that backed Walter Mondale in 1984. In key respects, it actually looks--in style, though not in substance-- more and more like the Republican Party of that year: a confederacy of competing, sometimes openly antagonistic interests joined less by a consensus on policy than by distaste for the opposition, and lubricated by a strong economy and the incentives of incumbency. These qualities, abetted by Bradley's own weaknesses, got Gore through the primaries with far less intra-party bloodletting than Bush. But what's next?
The DLC is already urging Gore to back away from his primary strategy, to "address the country not in terms of pillars, but in terms of values and messages that are shared by all Americans," as one senior New Democrat puts it. But that doesn't mean Gore needs to ditch the grass roots. The parents of P.S. 163, after all, were lauding Gore's vigorous defense of public schools, not vouchers. And in that, these Harlem voters are just like lots of other voters who give Gore high marks on education. Maybe the soccer moms and the Democratic base weren't so far apart after all. ¤
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)