Republicans love to poke fun at the many incarnations of Al Gore, who seems, like a chrysalis, always in the process of becoming. But more important than the changes themselves is the question of whether he will find a tack that actually works. The latest version of the Gore campaign has the dressed-down and moussed-up vice president scourging, in painstakingly enunciated sound bites, every possible nasty business interest (except, oddly enough, rapacious landlords).
Gore-as-populist certainly makes more sense than his prior iterations. Immediately after the primaries the vice president became McGore, duplicating John McCain’s campaign-finance-reform agenda, but, always an overachiever, taking it even further. Gore became McCain without the charm, a dreary prospect indeed since charm was McCain’s appeal. Gore’s corporate-bashing represents a more intelligent-and substantive-way to bottle McCain’s thunder.
Voters enjoyed McCain’s fighting spirit, which was refreshing in an age dominated by saccharine political rhetoric. It also marked him as “willing to stand up for what he believes,” one of the most important qualities the public looks for in its politicians. The anti-corporate assault allows Gore to claim McCain’s fighting mantle, without seeming personally nasty the way he did when attacking Bush as “arrogant” and “smug.” It is doubly important for Gore to find an effective way to attack, because it is the only thing he’s comfortable doing.
And the anti-corporate rhetoric actually connects to a substantive program in a way McCain’s campaign-finance rants didn’t. Gore quickly discovered that people don’t care whether or not you spend “soft money.” His new tack allows him to maintain the same anti-special- interest rhetoric, but in support of important political goals-in the case of Big Oil, diverting attention from his own energy policy; in the case of pharmaceutical companies, building support for his prescription-drug benefit; and so on through “corporate polluters,” and Big Tobacco, and firearms manufacturers.
His rhetoric may well be a shrewd way to energize his base and attempt to reach elderly and working-class voters with a frankly populist appeal. But Gore also risks throwing away the lesson of Clinton’s victory in 1996, muting the appeal of the administration’s economic record, and running smack into powerful electoral and demographic forces that he had already retooled his campaign to take into account. (Eventually, all this retooling doubles back on itself.) The vice president’s latest tactic calls into question whether the Third Way will have a second act.
In the Clinton White House in 1996 there was a dispute over how to talk about the economy. Labor secretary Robert Reich, in keeping with traditional liberal concerns, wanted to emphasize the economy’s failings, the workers “left behind.” Dick Morris urged the president to stay positive, heralding the economy’s achievements in a way that helped make the public more optimistic, and, in turn, win those optimists over to his side.
Gore is now attempting a straddle, sounding like Reich in his assault on the new malefactors of wealth, and like Morris in touting “progress and prosperity.” It’s a contradictory combination. A populist assault on business usually requires the dire atmospherics of a recession to catch fire (this is why Pat Buchanan’s populism seemed to have a future in the GOP in 1992, and now doesn’t even seem to have a future in the rump Reform party). It’s also tricky to sound anti-corporate and pro- capitalist at the same time. Gore and the Justice Department are open to the charge that they favor “progress and prosperity,” so long as no one makes a profit or expands his business.
Old and New Democrats argue with each other about what was most responsible for Clinton’s 1996 victory-defending popular entitlement programs and standing up to Newt Gingrich, or acceding to a balanced budget and muting the party’s liberalism. But this is like debating what’s most important in a car, the axles or the wheels. By eliminating his most obvious political vulnerabilities, Clinton’s fiscal and social moderation paved the way for his defense of entitlement programs. Gore’s anti-corporate jag risks upsetting the balance.
In the aftermath of the 1996 election, New Democrat strategist Will Marshall argued, “Whereas the Left’s economic story mainly conveys fear of change and animosity toward U.S. businesses-usually depicted with all the subtlety of a Snidely Whiplash cartoonmust craft a new narrative that appropriates the new symbols, lexicon, and techniques of the information age.” This seems indisputable. On the other hand, as Ruy Teixeira and Joel Rogers demonstrate in their new book America’s Forgotten Majority, New Democrats tend to exaggerate the decline of the white working class as an electoral force. New Democrat analysts, for instance, loosely categorize all “women” as a suburban, upscale constituency when many of them, of course, are low-income.
Gore’s Social Security savings-accounts proposal seemed to square this New Democrat/Old Democrat circle. It acknowledged that a new, healthy force is afoot in the economy-e.g., widely available stock ownership- and at the same time it explicitly aimed to help lower- and middle- income workers avail themselves of it. But the latest anti-corporate swing puts Gore right back in Snidely Whiplash territory-especially if George W. Bush makes him pay a price for his rhetoric by identifying it with the old McGovern/Mondale liberalism.
Which remains in doubt. Bush likes business in the west Texas, down- and-dirty sense. He has an instinctive distaste for Wall Street, populated by Ivy Leaguers with slicked-back hair and pin-striped suits, so he may not be inclined to stick up for corporate profits. Also, his compassionate-conservative message is suffused with Catholic social teachings skeptical of unbridled capitalism. Finally, he’s built his campaign around the idea that people will have to disregard the good times to elect him-if people care only about Wall Street, he says on the stump, then I’ll still be the governor of Texas in November.
Bush, therefore, has failed to take full advantage of a traditional Republican strength, and an absolutely crucial issue in any presidential election: stewardship of the economy. He raps the Clinton administration for thinking it “invented prosperity,” and has a line about how his tax cut will provide insurance against a recession, but that’s about it. Even this half-hearted effort has propelled him ahead of Gore. According to a Rasmussen survey, just 27 percent of people think a Gore win would be good for the economy, while 38 percent say it would be bad. Voters are about evenly split on a Bush victory.
This traditional strength of Repub licans should be all the stronger in light of “the new investor class.” In his latest stump speech, Gore sets up an opposition between “the people” and “the power.” This is a notion as outdated as it sounds. Today’s captains of industry are associated with technologies that in crease personal autonomy and choice. In the popular imagination, they aren’t cheating the little guy, but empowering him: Bill Gates, for example, has been ruled a monopolist but remains one of the most popular figures in the country. Three times as many people credit him with the robust economy than attribute it to Bill Clinton. It helps that millions of people own a piece of Microsoft.
And just as important as stock ownership is the force of aspiration. The newly populist Gore recently rapped the GOP death-tax repeal for giving “away the store to those who already own the shopping center.” But 65 House Democrats voted for the repeal exactly because they have constituents who hope to own shopping centers. In boom-time America especially, small businesses can aspire to become evil corporations, and middle-class people to earn enough money-perhaps partly through investing in firms like Merck or Pfizer-to become the targets of the Democrats’ rhetorical ire.