Politics & Policy

The Gore Straddle

Clintonian policies, lefty rhetoric.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared in the September 11, 2000, issue of National Review.

On the face of it, Al Gore appears to have taken a sharp turn to the left at the Democratic convention. He vowed to pass the Kyoto global-warming accords, a major provision of which has already been rejected 95-0 by the Senate. He spoke more about how he would regulate trade than about how he would free it. Where President Clinton had promised to “mend” affirmative action, Gore said only that he would “defend” it. Since the defeat of the Clintons’ health-care plan in 1994, Democrats have said that they would pursue “health-care reform” step by step. Gore made it clear that the end point of reform was “universal health coverage”–i.e., national health insurance. He also came out for universal preschool. In 1996, Clinton opened the door a crack for school vouchers. Gore slammed it shut, saying he would oppose “any plan” that sent tax revenues to private schools.

As Gore told it, trade unions are more important to America’s future than the rising stock market. “I’m happy that the stock market has boomed and so many businesses and new enterprises have done well,” he said. “This country is richer and stronger. 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.” Later in the speech, Gore told a success story about how administration policies had helped a woman leave welfare and become “a proud member of I.B.E.W. Local 288.” This is not a campaign for the New Economy. Gore is moving leftward, and backward: Add some attacks on “economic royalists” and take out the defense of abortion and the coded appeals to gays and lesbians, and his father could have given that speech 60 years ago.

New Democrats would disagree with this assessment. They would probably note that Gore also came out in his speech for targeted tax cuts and demanded further reductions in crime; that he boasted of his support for the Gulf War; that he talked about reducing the national debt rather than spending the surplus; that he continues to support the death penalty and missile defense. All true. But these positions highlight the perversity of Gore’s political strategy: He is selling mostly Clintonian policies with the rhetoric of an unreconstructed liberal.

Clintonian policies are not always moderate. Clinton and Gore have never been interested in reforming budget-busting entitlements or racial preferences, as many New Democrats are. Nor will they brook compromise on abortion, the cause dearest to the hearts of the convention delegates. But these are defensive positions. Where Gore proposes departures from the status quo, those departures tend toward the tepid.

His promise to stand up to the NRA consists, in the first instance, of an end to the so-called “gun-show loophole.” The law as it stands requires background checks when gun dealers make a sale, but not when gun collectors who aren’t in the business do. Collectors can do this at their homes or at gun shows, and Democrats want to restrict their ability to do so anywhere. This is picayune stuff.

Ditto for Gore’s “patient’s bill of rights.” Gore is not proposing to transform the way health care is delivered. He would not eliminate rationing by HMOs. He’s just throwing sand in the gears, reducing the efficiency of their rationing by regulating them and exposing them to lawsuits. Making the debate even more trivial is that Republicans, including George W. Bush, have their own proposal to regulate HMOs, a proposal that leans less heavily on litigation. So Gore is reduced to calling for a “real, enforceable patient’s bill of rights,” leaving the details unspecified.

The political appeal of these sorts of proposals is that they sound sensible. Most people will support them, or at least accept them. The political drawback is that these proposals stir the passions of no one. Clinton was nonetheless able to give Democratic partisans and independent voters a reason to feel they had a stake in electing him. For the partisans, he was able to promise to end the Republican lock on the White House (in 1992) and to stave off Newt Gingrich (in 1996). For the independent voters, he was an acceptable alternative to Republicans who were hopelessly out of touch (in both years).

Without a Gingrich or a Dole to work with, Gore has not been able to generate enthusiasm for his candidacy in either group. Liberals are tired of the discipline of the last eight years. It seems unnecessary now that the budget is in surplus and the Religious Right no longer menacing. If Gore frustrates them, they can always flirt with Ralph Nader, or riot in the streets. In George W. Bush, meanwhile, Republicans have found a candidate whom both conservatives and the public at large can support.

Gore, then, had to find a way to make a politics of lowered visions seem exciting. For several months this year, he attempted to achieve this goal by YELLING A LOT. His new tack is to borrow the melodramatic rhetoric of politicians to his left. In his speech, he talked about the “powerful forces” that oppress “working families,” and how he would “fight” the former on behalf of the latter. The convention as a whole exhibited the same bifurcation as Gore’s speech: The speakers (Jesse Jackson, John Sweeney, Elizabeth Birch, etc.) were more liberal than the written platform.

The disjunction between Gore’s policies and his rhetoric is jarring. If corporate power is so oppressive, Gore should have been with the protesters outside his convention–or should at least be trying to break up Time Warner. In 1992, the late Herbert Stein wrote of Paul Tsongas’s grandiloquent pamphlet A Call to Economic Arms, “This is the voice of Henry V at Agincourt or Winston Churchill during the Battle of Britain rallying America to a cause whose main ingredients include saving aluminum cans and raising the gasoline tax.” Something similar could be said of Gore.

Gore’s new approach carries several risks. One is that voters may not recognize themselves in his portrait of helpless victims of corporate malefaction. His implied distinction between participants in the stock market and “working families” ignores reality: These days, the market is the means by which many of those families “save for college and do right by their kids.” In today’s economy, there may not be enough resentment to sustain Gore’s kind of liberalism.

Gore declared, “I am not satisfied.” But most people are satisfied. They detect no crisis that politicians have to address. Gore promises to fight for them. But they think politicians do too much fighting as it is. Gov. Bush’s campaign skillfully exploits this sentiment by ignoring divisive issues and denouncing partisanship. The implicit promise of Bush’s campaign is that if he is elected, no one will ever hear from Washington again. Whatever else one thinks of what Bush is selling, it must be conceded that there’s a public demand for it.

Bill Clinton has played no small role in creating today’s anti-political environment: His soothing persona, his trivial politics, his scandals have all contributed to it. In this placid political era, Republicans would never dream of making a frontal assault on the welfare state. The taming of the Republicans must be counted as Clinton’s biggest political success. But a pacified polity is not one that Gore can easily rile up. So he may be the final victim of Clinton’s success.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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