The London Observer
Al Gore is finally on a roll. But where will it take him? This past week
he's been telling Americans 'we've got to put you first' and not 'the ones
with connections, the ones with wealth, the ones with power above and
beyond what the average family has in this country'. He's for the people,
while 'the other side' is for the powerful. It's good old-fashioned
hell-fire-and-brimstone political rhetoric. During the Thirties, Franklin D.
Roosevelt condemned the 'economic royalists' - America's big businesses
that, he said, were stomping on average Americans. In 1912, progressive
Republican Teddy Roosevelt blamed the 'malefactors of great wealth' for
subjugating the 'little man' of America. In the 1890s, prairie populist
William Jennings Bryan (who almost made it to the White House) railed at
the bankers and other 'powerful interests' who were 'bankrupting'
But this kind of talk hasn't been heard from a Democratic Presidential
candidate since the dismal final week of Michael Dukakis's ill-fated 1988
Presidential run, when, with his candidacy sinking like a stone, Dukakis
briefly and suddenly became an economic populist. By then, of course, it
was too late.
It hasn't been heard from Al Gore, either - until two week ago. Quite the
contrary. In the 1988 Democratic primary, Gore ran as a business-friendly
moderate. A few years later he helped launch the Democratic Leadership
Council - a refuge for so-called 'new' Democrats who wanted nothing to do
with pro-union, corporate-bashing old Democrats.
In 1992, Gore teamed up with Bill Clinton on a brazenly New Democrat
(forerunner of Tony Blair's Third Way) platform. Then, as Vice President, he
urged Clinton to slash the budget deficit and go slow on new programmes
for health care and education so that American corporations could enjoy
lower interest rates. And he spurred Clinton into making free trade a top
priority. Gore then led the fight for the North American Free Trade Act,
followed by the agreement setting up the World Trade Organization.
Business loved him for it. The unions were less than overjoyed.
But in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention Gore suddenly
became a new Gore sounding like an old Democrat - telling Americans he
sympathized with how 'so often powerful forces and powerful interests
stand in your way and the odds seem stacked against you', and then
naming the culprits: 'Big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the
pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs [Health Maintenance Organisations].'
Gore fired up the delegates, and fired himself up as well. He pledged to
'fight' for 'working families' - a code term for 'the working-class', which he
reiterated nine times - and vowed to take on the big guys. 'Sometimes you
have to be willing to stand up and say no, so families can have a better
life.' And he has kept at it since then. Will he hammer the theme all the
way through the crucial presidential debates - three of them tentatively
scheduled for October - and on to election day, 7 November?
It's a calculated risk. Undoubtedly Gore got a 'bounce' from his
performance at the Democratic convention. Polls now put him slightly
ahead of George W. Bush. Before the convention, he was trailing by about
15 points. The new rhetoric also seems to make Gore a more passionate
campaigner - a quality he desperately needs. Otherwise, he's stiff and
technocratic, especially in contrast to George W. Bush's glib geniality.
The 'people versus the powerful' theme exactly points up the distinction
Gore wants to highlight between him and George W. It's the Republicans'
biggest vulnerability - the public's lingering worry that Republicans only
care about the privileged. That's why Bush has been pushing his
'compassionate' conservatism, and talking nonstop about education.
But George W. Bush can't hide the facts: After all, congressional
Republicans have blocked popular legislation aimed at tobacco,
environmental pollution, pharmaceutical companies, and HMOs. Their
recent tax cuts have all been sops to America's wealthiest. And - most
important - Bush's own plan for a massive tax cut would overwhelmingly
benefit richer Americans. The people versus the powerful, indeed.
Gore's rhetoric could also fire up the Democratic 'base' - unionized workers,
teachers, and public employees. Gore needs to energize them for the
election. Not only do they have to be motivated to vote, but also to run the
phone-banks and drive the vans that will get other Democrats to the polls
on election day.
Until now, the base been only luke-warm toward Gore. Some (especially in
all-important California) have even toyed with the idea of voting instead
for left-wing Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.
But Gore's new strategy also poses substantial risks.
It's hard to tell Americans they're powerless and vulnerable while at the
same time telling them they've never had it so good. The two messages
directly conflict. Yet surely Gore's biggest selling point is he's been
second-in-command in an administration that presided over eight years of
extraordinary economic growth. Unemployment and inflation are now lower
than they've been in 30 years, median wages are rising, and even
Americans at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder are starting to make
progress. 'Are you better now than you were eight years ago, when they
were in office?' is a more persuasive rhetorical question than 'do you feel
like you're being screwed by them and their powerful friends?' But Gore
can't very well expect people to say yes to both.
In fact, most voting Americans don't like to think of themselves as
powerless, and they don't much like class warfare because they hope to
hit the jackpot one day and become rich. Populist rhetoric may fire up the
Democratic 'base' but it's tended to be a loser with America's large and
upwardly-mobile middle class. Meanwhile, poor and working-class
Americans who have more reason to feel powerless have all but stopped
voting. In 1996, less than half of adult Americans eligible to vote actually
walked into voting booths, and most of those who didn't were in the
bottom half of the income ladder. This is precisely why in recent years,
Democratic politicians - including Bill Clinton and Al Gore in l992 and,
especially, in 1996 have pitched their campaigns to the upscale suburbs,
and why Democrats have tended to drift to the right, where suburban
'swing' voters are found. Will the new rhetoric attract back some of
Gore's new tack also risks reopening the question - already asked by Bush
at almost every campaign stop - of who Gore really is and what he really
believes. Gore's speeches may be full of specifics about education, health
care, and Social Security, but it's not clear what they add up to. Is he a
New Democrat? An old Democrat? A born-again Populist?
As noted, the new theme seems to have nothing to do with Gore's history.
It's even at odds with his chosen running mate, Connecticut Senator Joe
Lieberman, who's voting record is to the right of most Democrats.
Lieberman is also pro-business, he's the current head of the Democratic
leadership Council, and he's one of the Senate's largest benefactors of
contributions from the insurance and healthcare industries.
It's not clear whether Gore's postconvention 'bounce' has had anything to
do with his new old-Democrat theme, anyway. Polls show he gained only 2
percentage points among men, statistically insignificant. But he gained 16
per cent of women. And it's a fair bet that what women liked most - in
addition to Gore's obviously genuine affection for his wife (America is still
talking about the prolonged kiss he gave Tipper after her introduction of
him, probably the most notorious Public Display of Affection in American
political history) -was his unbridled support for abortion rights and for
equal pay for women. Bush and the Republicans are negative on both.)
Women didn't flock to Gore because of his new-found populism.
But not to worry. There's plenty of time between now and the debates for
Gore to measure the benefits of his new message against its potential
risks, and make whatever adjustments seem necessary. And you can be
sure he will. No modern American politician thinks more carefully before he
acts than Albert Gore, Jr.