Working-Class Hero, Sort of

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.

(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.


Beyond the ranks of the DLC, however, there are a number of political observers who wonder if Gore‘s neo-populism addresses too narrow an audience, if it really offers swing voters who’ve benefited from the boom any reason to vote for him at all. In fact, Gore has been very careful in his choice of targets for his populist ire. He listed only five in his speech: oil companies, drug companies, corporate polluters, tobacco companies and HMOs. Any list of America‘s Most Hated -- and that means hated by rich, middle-class and poor alike -- would include all five of these industries, with HMOs surely heading the list. Moreover, Gore can make clear the differences between W.’s approach to every one of these industries and his own. (In the case of oil, of course, the attack isn‘t on W.’s policies; it‘s on his -- and Dick Cheney’s -- resumes.)

The pundits who fear Gore is forsaking all those upscale swingers whom Clinton corralled, who think he‘s off-message by dwelling on the working-class blues, have neglected one salient fact. For Democrats, election 2000 differs in one fundamental aspect from ’92 and ‘96: Ralph Nader. There are at least a couple of million voters on the party’s left wing who are torn between Ralph and Al, and nothing will drive them into Nader‘s waiting arms like a Democratic ”Morning in America“ campaign. For Al Gore, then, the options have narrowed to Populism or Bust. Fifty-two years after Harry Truman’s pugnacious populism led to his victory over Republican Tom Dewey and Progressive Henry Wallace -- the 1948 version of the 7-10 split -- Al Gore can only hope that the same strategy will work for him.

Gore‘s speech itself has to be judged a clear success. To be sure, he went a full 50 minutes without even stumbling across a memorable phrase. He spoke so quickly that at times he seemed the populist-as-auctioneer. On the other hand, when Gore speaks slowly, he lapses into ”Mom-ese“ -- a tempo and a tone that suggests he’s explaining something to a 4-year-old. When audiences hear Gore speaking to them in Mom-ese, their reactions run the gamut from wanting to stone him to wanting to lynch him. With that in mind, it wasn‘t all that terrible that he zipped through his talk.

Whether because of -- or despite -- the zippy delivery, the speech accomplished all that the Gore camp had hoped for. Virtually every poll had him bumping up (in the case of the CNNUSA TodayGallup poll, by 17 points) into a narrow lead -- his first lead ever against W. The bump, moreover, came almost entirely among women: In the Gallup poll, Gore’s female support increased by a huge 31 percent, while his male support rose hardly at all. As crucial as the speech was to this increase, credit also has to go to Tipper‘s home-picture biopic with which she introduced the Big Guy, and the smooch that topped it. It was, in fact, the linchpin of the GHP: If Tipper thinks Al is this hot, he can’t entirely be the stiff he otherwise seems.

What with Hot Lips Al and Fighting Populist Al both jumping out of the convention-week cake, it should come as no surprise that Gore‘s polling rose not only among women, but working-class women most of all. Among voters from families with annual incomes between $20,000 and $50,000, in fact, Gore’s support jumped by 21 percent. The Teixeira-Rogers thesis, to which Stan Greenberg, Gore‘s new pollster, clearly subscribes, is already being borne out. Indeed, America’s Forgotten Majority may provide the theoretical rationale for the Gore campaign in much the same way that E.J. Dionne‘s Why Americans Hate Politics did for Clinton’s 1992 candidacy. (Guy Molyneux, vice president of Peter Hart polling, notes that W.‘s campaign, in its insistence that America mainly wants to put political conflict behind it, seems based on a badly truncated version of Dionne’s book. W., says Molyneux, ”is two election cycles late.“)


The Democratic Convention as a whole was considerably less of a success than Gore‘s speech, however. It ran through a multiplicity of themes and tones before Gore took to the podium. Oddly enough, in its overabundance of messages, it mirrored the protests outside Staples Center, which raised so many issues that they were all lost in the shuffle. Some of the convention presentations fell on one side or the other of the party’s fault line: Clinton tilting toward centrist New Democrats, Bill Bradley and Jesse Jackson tilting toward liberal Old. Until Gore himself took the mike, the convention seemed not so much misguided as directionless -- and in this, it caught the essence of his campaign in the five and one-half months between the end of primary season and his convention address.

Conventions always leave unanswered questions about the candidate, the party, the rival factions -- but enough of such ephemera. What I want to know is: What happened to all those ”Hadassah“ signs? They could be used for Jewish institutional purposes for decades to come.

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