World

Trying to Light a Fire

Anxious Democrats wonder if Al Gore can revive his flagging campaign against George W. Bush

Andrew Phillips August 28 2000
World

Trying to Light a Fire

Anxious Democrats wonder if Al Gore can revive his flagging campaign against George W. Bush

Andrew Phillips August 28 2000
Al Gore has been in the public eye from the moment of his birth just over 52 years ago. His father, Albert Gore Sr., then a five-term congressman and a powerhouse of Tennessee politics, cajoled the states biggest newspaper into promising that if he had a son, the news would not be buried on the inside pages. So when young Al arrived on March 31, 1948, the Nashville Tennessean obliged with this headline: “Well, Mr. Gore, here HE is—on page 1.” Before he was even home from the hospital, writes his biographer, Bill Turque, “Al Gore had won a news cycle for his father.”

The boy went on to lead a very public life—congressman at age 28, senator at 36, first-time presidential candidate at 39, vice-president at 44, and, as of last week, the Democratic party’s presidential nominee. Few people have left such an extensive trail of speeches made, interviews granted, laws enacted, books written, friends pleased and enemies offended. All have been endlessly sifted, dissected, parsed and analyzed. Yet even as he rose to accept his party’s acclaim in Los Angeles, his closest supporters acknowledged a fundamental problem. Their man, they said, remains an enigma, a prisoner of media stereotypes and eight years as loyal understudy to the most compelling political figure of his generation—Bill Clinton. Once again, the vice-president faced the task of “introducing” himself to American voters.

The Democrats’ dilemma, of course, is that after a quarter-century in the public spotlight, their champion should need no introduction. Yet there he was, reminding those Americans actually paying attention to such matters in mid-August, of his roots in Tennessee farm country, his decision to volunteer for army service in Vietnam despite his misgivings about the war, and his early career as a reporter on the paper that so prominently hailed his birth. His other, more important task was to declare his political independence from his boss, which proved far from simple. The words were there (“I stand here tonight as my own man”), but the music was uncertain.

In large part that was because of Clinton's potent star power, even as his eight year tenure in the White House draws to an end. The President came to Los Angeles for a final farewell to his party (and to raise $ 15 million for his presidential library at not one, but two glitzy receptions hosted by Barbra Streisand). Hillary Rodham Clinton came, too, using the convention as a rallying point for her campaign for a New York senate seat. The problem was, that proved to be the emotional high point for Democrats, leaving Gore’s own appearance at what was supposed to be his convention as something of an anti-climax.

Even worse, just as Gore was poised for The Speech, which was supposed to “define” him both as a clear alternative to George W. Bush and a clean break from Clinton, voters received a fresh reminder of the tawdriest days of the Clinton-Gore administration. Suddenly, major news outlets were filled with leaked reports that an independent counsel in Washington had assembled a new grand jury to look again into Clinton’s involvement in the Monica Lewinsky affair. The jury, according to the reports, had been convened since July 11—but the unknown sources behind the report chose to reveal its existence on the day that Gore had his clearest shot at addressing voters (“I won’t let you down,” he told them, in another not-so-subtle attempt to distance himself from Clinton’s moral failings). Those close to the vice-president were not amused at the timing. “This stinks,” said Jack Quinn, a Washington lawyer and onetime senior aide to Gore.

The result was, at best, a shaky relaunch for a candidate whose campaign has had more than its share of misfires. Even the loyal Democrats who gathered in Los Angeles to party, raise money and rubberstamp Gore’s nomination could not mask their misgivings. Amid the manufactured hoopla of a convention, doubters were not hard to find. “Clinton would crush George W. like a bug,” said Inola Henry, a delegate from California. “Gore doesn’t have that kind of juice. Maybe nobody does.” Likewise Harold Cummings of Atlanta: “Gore deserves to win, but life ain’t fair. I don’t know if he can make it.”

Among thinking Democrats there is puzzlement—even amazement— that Bush, a comparative lightweight in both political experience and intellectual heft, seems to be cruising towards victory on Nov. 7. Delaware Senator Joseph Biden admitted that “there’s a lot of anxiety hanging over this convention. We pick up the morning paper and we can’t understand how a guy like George W. Bush can be leading a guy with the kind of experience and know-how as Al Gore.” Derek Shearer, a foreign policy adviser to Gore, studied with Bush at Yale University in the mid1960s (“he roomed across the hall”) and shook his head at the thought that the Texas governor could win the presidency with such scant accomplishments. “He was bright enough in his own way, but he’s never been engaged with the issues,” said Shearer. “People have to decide: do they want someone who’s a sure hand, or a glad hand?”

It is coming down to that. Now that Gore and Bush have both been officially nominated by their parties, the choice facing U.S. voters is clearer. In a time of peace and prosperity, the policy differences are not momentous—but they are significant. Bush, for all his talk about being a new kind of “compassionate conservative,” would nudge the United States towards the right. He proposes a deep across-the-board tax cut ($2 trillion over 10 years); allowing Americans to put part of their Social Security retirement funds into the stock market; and channeling money for social reforms through so-called faith-based institutions (churches and the like).

Fresh developments in the Monica Lewinsky scandal cast a shadow over Gore’s political coming-out party

Bush's pitch may leave many cold, but at least it has been consistent. Aside from a lurch to the right when he was pressed hard by Arizona Senator John McCain during the primary campaigns early this year, Bush has been saying the same things in almost the same words since he declared his candidacy 13 months ago. The rap against Gore is that he is a political changeling: you never know what you’re going to get. He can be the visionary champion of the New Economy, or the defender of traditional Democratic interest groups like big labor unions. A high-minded philosopher—or an in-the-gutter street-fighter who says politicians have to be willing to “rip the heart and lungs out of anybody else in the race.” An idealistic advocate of getting big money out of politics—or the man who in 1996 became known as the Democrats’ “solicitor-in-chief” for raising so much campaign cash (most notoriously at a Buddhist temple in California).

When he stood before his party to accept the nomination, it quickly became clear which persona he had settled on. At a time when most of the United States is fat and happy, enjoying the fruits of its longest economic expansion ever, Gore chose to present himself as the champion of “working families” against “powerful forces and powerful interests.” He sounded more like an old-style Democrat than a “third way” politician like Clinton, who outfoxed Republicans by stealing many of their favorite conservative themes. Gore promised to work towards universal health care, starting with universal coverage for all children by 2004 (that makes him almost radical by U.S. standards); introduce prescription drug benefits for senior citizens; shore up the existing social security system; oppose the kind of big tax cut that Bush wants; and protect abortion rights.

Most of those issues are popular with U.S. voters. Most, in fact, are the same ones that Clinton is still pushing. The difference is that Gore presented them in a more populist, confrontational way. Such an appeal carries big risks. One is that it will alienate independent voters who have prospered under the Clinton boom; they may be put off by Gore’s theme of the-people-versus the-corporate-powers. The other problem is that it is hard to square such a message with his choice of Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. Lieberman has taken positions at odds with liberal orthodoxy— such as questioning affirmative action programs for minority groups. As No. 2 on the Democratic ticket, Lieberman will follow Gore’s lead. But in policy terms his selection seemed like yet another zigzag by Gore—even to some Democrats. “I got to admit, I’m not always sure what the thinking is behind some of this,” said Howard Barr, a 32-year-old party activist from Houston. “Sometimes you just gotta close your eyes and have faith.”

The campaign is also, of course, a personal face-off between two men with much in common. Both are sons of famous men: the Republican salutes his dad, the former president; the Democrat reminisces about his late father, the senator. Both were privileged private-school kids and Ivy League graduates whose advancement was eased by their names and family connections. The paradox is that it is Bush who is the real aristocrat, the scion of a truly wealthy eastern Establishment family, but he manages to present himself as a regular guy from Midland, Tex., whose parents just happened to live in the White House. Gore, meanwhile, whose family is just one generation removed from the poverty and obscurity of Possum Hollow, Tenn., gets stereotyped as Hollow Man, a robotic creature of Washington.

He acknowledged that last week, trying to turn weakness into strength. “I know that sometimes people say I’m too serious,” he said, “but the presidency is more than a popularity contest.” That kind of fight, in fact, is no contest at all. Bush easily outpoints Gore when pollsters ask voters to rate the two men for “likability.” Gore has to hope that it won’t turn out that way, that when people finally see the two men side by side during the three presidential debates scheduled for October, they will choose substance over style. The mood of most U.S. voters, however, suggests that it’s a long shot at best.