Al Gore, the Populist

In the last couple of weeks, Al Gore has undergone yet another makeover. Now he's a populist, bashing drug companies, oil barons, and tax cuts for the wealthy, sticking up for the ordinary working American.

He gave a barn-burner of a speech to the NAACP. This past week he was rewarded by a nice bounce in the polls, putting him almost even with W. What gives?

What gives is that nothing else worked. What gives is that Gore has suffered from a passion gap, and in order to express passion, you need something to be passionate about. Reinventing government may be sensible policy, but it is not the stuff that brings a crowd to its feet.

What gives is that Gore and his handlers finally grasped that the affluent donors who increasingly dominate American politics may love a cautious center-right agenda, but it's the voters who ultimately elect a president. What gives is that Ralph Nader was stealing the heart of the party's most energetic wing.

Last week Gore thundered: ''For all my public service, I've stood up to the big drug companies, the big oil companies, the insurance companies, and the HMOs. That's what I'm doing now in this campaign - and that's exactly what I'll do as president of the United States.''

This makeover I could live with. Maybe it's even real.

There's an interesting broader dynamic at work here:

Political experts tell Democratic presidential candidates to run as centrists and to appeal to swing voters. But candidates discover that it takes populist themes to rally dormant Democratic voters.

Democrats, traditionally, are the party of the little guy. But working-class voters tend to be cynical about politics. The bottom half of the electorate is not benefiting from the boom, and the bottom half is responsible for most of the decline in voting turnout.

Democrats get elected with real mandates when they convincingly reach that electorate. That's what Bill Clinton did in 1992, momentarily giving his ''New Democrat'' allies hives. His 1992 manifesto, ''Putting People First,'' was not a centrist document but a populist one, promising that people who worked hard and played by the rules should not have to live in poverty; that everyone deserved health insurance that could never be taken away.

Once in office, Clinton governed more as a centrist. The most powerful interest groups, notably organized business, are antipopulist. The people you have to raise money from are not especially populist either. No wonder ordinary voters are cynical.

As political scientists Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers write in their perceptive new book ''America's Forgotten Majority,'' today's silent majority is made up of downscale voters (or nonvoters) who are culturally conservative but who still look to government for economic opportunity and security.

Despite the new economy, they report, white working class voters (average family income: $42,000) still make up 55 percent of the electorate, and the main thing they want from government is material improvement in their lives.

These voters, Teixeira and Rogers argue convincingly, are the real swing voters. Democrats haven't been winning their hearts lately because Democrats haven't convincingly championed the forgotten majority's pocketbook interests. Voters without college degrees, especially men, have fallen further and further behind despite the supposed boom. I don't know whether Gore read the book, but it might as well be his new campaign manual.

Gore is sounding more populist than Bill Clinton ever did. His speeches are peppered with references to a Republican Congress in the pockets of drug and oil companies. He's doing his best to be Harry Truman. His proposed family savings plan, as a supplement to Social Security, would have government match the savings of working families on a three-to-one basis. Accounts could then be tapped for first-time home ownership, college tuition, and major illnesses as well as eventually for retirement. Not bad.

This new Gore sounds like he is energizing himself. And if he doesn't reinvent himself yet again, he could make the election a lot more interesting. He could give the lie to the impression that the two candidates are Tweedledum and Tweedledee. He might pull back some wavering Democrats tempted to vote for Ralph Nader and motivate others who are currently inclined to stay home. He might even get elected.

Then the trick would be to govern as a progressive. That would be truly populist.

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