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Working-Class Hero, Sort of 

Why the New Al Gore sounds like a populist

Wednesday, Aug 23 2000
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To visualize Al Gore’s dilemma, picture him bowling. The image itself is just the sort of thing the Gore campaign is trying to implant in our craniums: scenes of Regular Guy Al. These are an integral part of the campaign‘s GHP (Gore Humanization Project).

But here’s the problem: When Al looks down the lane, he sees a 7-10 split. Only two pins are left standing, but one is on the far left side of the lane and the other is on the far right. And he‘s got only one shot to knock them both down.

Now, Gore doesn’t really have to win the support of the extremes of the political spectrum. But he does have to lock down both the liberal base of the party (including potential Naderites) and the swing voters nearer the center of the political spectrum. To begin with the base, he has to get African-Americans and union members to the polls in near-record numbers, and he has to get the activists within those communities, as well as the Latino and environmentalist communities, to walk the precincts and staff the phone banks. None of this is a given: In the last pre-convention polls, Gore was getting just 78 percent support from his fellow Democrats, while W. was backed by a stunning 95 percent of Republicans.

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(A figure much in evidence at last week‘s convention, by the way, was Gore’s brother-in-law, Frank Hunger -- a name that describes perfectly why the Republicans have submerged their differences to support Bush.)

But locking down the liberals only gets Gore the 7-pin. To win, he must also carry one of two more centrist constituencies: upscale suburbanites or working-class whites. Conventional wisdom has it that Bill Clinton was able to win because, unlike Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale, he carried the affluent ‘burbs. In fact, as Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers demonstrate in the important new book, America’s Forgotten Majority, working-class whites have more often been the key to Democratic prospects over the past decade. (In 1996, fully 57 percent of voters had no college degree.) Even if Teixeira and Rogers were wrong, however, there‘s no way Gore can pitch to the suburban-SUV set and still reclaim enough of the Democratic activists. He cannot be the centrist steward of the economic prosperity (the upscale Gore) and the fighting populist (the activists’ Gore) at one and the same time.

But with just the right populist spin, he can -- theoretically -- win both the activists and enough working-class whites to prevail. Those are his 7- and 10-pins of choice. And of necessity.

It was this strategic imperative that dictated the content of Gore‘s acceptance speech last Thursday night. He didn’t simply allude to his downscale strategy; he stated it baldly: ”I‘m happy that the stock market has boomed and so many businesses and new enterprises have done well,“ he said. ”But my focus is on working families -- people trying to make house payments and car payments, working overtime to save for college and do right by their kids.“

”So often,“ he continued, ”powerful forces and powerful interests stand in your way, and the odds seem stacked against you -- even as you do what’s right for you and your family.“ On the issue that most clearly divides upscale business Dems from downscale labor ones -- trade -- he came down squarely on the downscale side: ”We must set standards in future trade agreements to end child labor, to prevent the exploitation of workers and the poisoning of the environment.“ What, if any, effect this mighty vow would have on how President Gore would actually govern is anybody‘s guess, but it certainly telegraphs how candidate Gore will campaign.

In short, Gore sounded less like the Bill Clinton of last Monday and more like the Bill Bradley of last Tuesday. Touting our current wave of prosperity will not in itself put him over the top. Only by turning to our unmet needs -- championing health insurance and prescription-drug coverage and more money for schools and a patients’ bill of rights -- can he win the two constituencies he absolutely needs. Just as important, it‘s on these bread-and-butter issues that he can draw the clearest differences between W. and himself. He obviously means to play for all its worth the contrast between W.’s proposed tax cut (which will funnel a cool $180 billion to the richest 1 percent of our countrymen over the next five years) and his own plan to use that money for prescription-drug coverage.

None of this, of course, is very pleasing to the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the group that has pushed the party away from government programs to more market-oriented policies over the past decade. The fact that Gore has long associated himself with the DLC, and that his running mate, Joe Lieberman, has been DLC chairman for a number of years, simply adds insult to this injury. The fact that Lieberman was compelled by a rebellion in the Democratic ranks (especially among unionists and blacks) to repudiate his support for vouchers and his doubts about affirmative action in his acceptance speech was the unkindest cut of all. But even as Al Gore has been more of a true believer in DLC policies than Clinton (he was more of a deficit-hawk and welfare-ender than Bill ever was), he is also, as a creature of the Beltway, much more solicitous of the needs of organized, old-line Democratic constituencies. Which, from a progressive perspective, means that his philosophic heart is in the wrong place, but his calculating head is screwed on just right.

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