Eleventh-hour Advice for Al Gore
hy isn’t Al Gore doing better in the opinion polls? This is now a popular question in the political press. George W. Bush is again leading his Democratic opponent as he has for much of the campaign, in spite of Gore’s stronger résumé. The question invariably leads to the next question—what can Gore do about it?
The polling data are not really perplexing, of course, because explanations are readily at hand. Bush is your charming brother-in-law who has made your sister happy, but who has a hint of naughtiness about him that makes your mother uncomfortable. Gore is your accountant grandfather whose great passion is comparing depreciation methods. With no issue having captured the interest of the electorate and highlighted the differences between the candidates, image has eclipsed policy. Whereas the Gore camp may have been expecting George W. Bush to boost its candidate by saying something silly or garbled, that hasn’t happened. Bush survived—perhaps even won—the debates, and he is carefully avoiding opportunities to put his foot in his mouth. Gore continues to be Gore, though what that means varies from week to week.
The hour is late, and the time has come for the Gore campaign to reassess its strategy and to try something different. Here are some suggestions.
Focus on the Process
Presidential candidates tell stories of what life would be like if they were in charge of the country. They neglect to point out that the President is never in charge of the country. Laws are made by Congress, signed by the President, and overseen by the Supreme Court. Neither Gore’s nor Bush’s stated vision is going to come to pass.
Voters generally approve of what their government has done in the past eight years. Gore can credibly argue that the success of the administration was a product of both its own initiatives and its ability to provide a check on radical right-wing elements in Congress. He should admit the obvious fact that the Democratic Party is not going to regain control of Congress and may, in fact, remain the minority party in both houses. A vote for him is a vote for divided government that favors moderation. A vote for Bush is likely to put the Republicans firmly in charge. Bush’s moderate image is only a veneer applied to the real face of the Republican Party, which was exposed at the party convention, in the South Carolina primary, and in statements by the NRA. In a George W. Bush administration, we will have the right to carry concealed weapons but not to have abortions; the oil companies will run the EPA; the poor will be poorer and the rich richer; the Internet will be censored; and our children will pray at football games, learn their multiplication tables, and be taught not to think.
Assert That the Supreme Court Matters
Bush has cleverly handled the critical issue of the future direction of the Supreme Court. By saying that he has no litmus test on abortion for court appointees but that Gore has announced his intention to appoint pro-choice judges, Bush has made Gore seem like a partisan on the issue of justice. Gore needs to say that a Republican President will be unable to resist pressure from the party center (that is, the political right wing) to appoint judges willing to blur boundaries of church and state and to substitute enforced rectitude for individual freedom. Gore needs to assert that his view of the Supreme Court is right for the country and represents a continuity with the past, rather than a dangerous swing toward theocracy and intolerance.
Everyone knows that Gore is more experienced than Bush; clearly, not enough people are convinced that it matters. Gore needs to emphasize that he is more qualified than people imagine and that Bush is less so.
It is time for Gore to admit to having been part of the Clinton administration. He can be his own man without having been born yesterday. By and large, people do feel better off than they did eight years ago, and eight years is long enough to believe that the current administration had something to do with it. Even though events take time to work their effect on the economy, Gore should insist that the present prosperity cannot simply be the product of Reagan tax cuts. Although Bush can say with some justification that entrepreneurs have been important agents of prosperity, the Executive plays a large part in creating a climate in which wealth can be created. Gore was part of that Executive.
Of course, Gore was qualified to be president even before he became Vice President. As Vice President, unlike many predecessors, he has not been the spare tire on the vehicle of state. He has had demonstrable responsibilities and has been a trusted advisor to the President. Gore should emphasize his understanding of both foreign and domestic issues, as well as his intimate understanding of the mechanics of government at the federal level.
And what about George W. Bush, a late bloomer with experience as an oilman, owner of a major league baseball team, and governor of Texas? Gore should explain why voters should not be impressed. In fact, Bush was an unsuccessful oil entrepreneur who gambled with and lost other people’s money. His baseball executive experience was also largely financed with money from family friends. Being twice elected governor of Texas is nothing to be ashamed of, of course, but voters would have more reason to be impressed were Bush from New York or California. The governor of Texas is one of the weakest chief executives of the fifty states, and he deals with a legislature that meets, to put it charitably, infrequently. George W. Bush has touted his bipartisan credentials, but Gore should explain that the party differences Bush has encountered in Texas are orders of magnitude smaller even than the differences found in a single party at the national level. Some of Bush’s associates may be prepared to do battle in that national arena, but there is no reason to think that Governor Bush is.
Elevate Foreign Policy
While true that Americans have always wished the need for foreign policy would go away, our international responsibilities are greater than they have ever been. Gore should hit Bush hard—though perhaps not long—on foreign policy. Bush has articulated a thinly veiled isolationist policy, and Gore should explain that if the U.S. does not assert moral leadership and tend to alliances, the resulting vacuum on the world stage will be filled by less benign forces that will require fighting the only kinds of fights Bush believes our military should engage in.
Bring on the Chief
It is something of a mystery that Al Gore has been as successful a politician as he has. The Peter Principle may be about to catch up with him, however. He is on the brink of losing the biggest political contest of his life, despite his accomplishments. Simply put, Gore is not charismatic, perhaps not even very likable. His cadences suggest that he was reared among a strange race that spoke a language different from but related to English. He tries to show passion by talking louder, which is truly embarrassing. Al Gore simply does not have the rhetorical gifts we would like to see in a President, but, in all other respects, he is the superior of Governor Bush. (Bush, in his way, is an irritating speaker in his own right, but that’s a subject for another day.) What is Gore to do? The answer is as clear as it is galling to the Vice President. Al Gore needs Bill Clinton, and he needs him fast.
We have all heard the objections to Clinton’s being more involved on Gore’s behalf. Association with Clinton sullies Gore with his boss’s moral lapses. He will turn off voters rather than turn them on to Gore. Balderdash! Gore cannot take credit for being Vice President if he refuses to mention his President. Clinton, as President, did a lot of things right. If he had a few moral blind spots, he is in good company—with the likes of JFK, FDR, and myriad others. Those who hate Clinton—and many truly loathe him—not only object to his morality, but also to his ability to convince anyone of anything. Whereas Gore would have a hard time convincing a dying man in the desert to drink from his canteen, Clinton could convince the same man to give up his canteen. This is the kind of rhetorical competence Gore needs, and only Clinton can supply it. Clinton can get voters fired up about this election in a way neither Gore nor Bush has done. In fact, this election is a very important one. The Democrats need to say as much, to say what is at stake, and to communicate their enthusiasm and urgency to the voters. Let’s hope it is not too late.
— LED, 10/26/2000