NEW YORK, N.Y.--Get ready for the new conventional wisdom about Al Gore's campaign for president: He's finally getting it together.
This view is about to take hold for two reasons, both of which were much in evidence at the launch of Gore's three-week-long "Prosperity and Progress" tour at the New York Historical Society this afternoon. (The Bush campaign has already dubbed it Gore's "I Invented Prosperity" tour.)
The first reason for Gore's pending comeback is that the press is sick to death of writing the story of how his campaign is hopelessly inept, tone-deaf, fractious, micromanaged, irritating, etc. Those assessments have been more than justified by candidate Gore's performance since the end of the primaries in March. It has been shockingly bad in almost every way. But you can write the same story only so many times--the New York Times' recent retakes on the intellectual origins of George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism and the young prepster's happy-go-lucky days at Andover notwithstanding. We journalists are desperate for something new to say about the presidential campaign, and Gore need provide only a few scraps of evidence for us to commence saying it.
This media dynamic aside, the second reason everyone is about to start saying Gore is doing better as a candidate is that Gore really is doing somewhat better as a candidate. In the past couple of weeks, the vice president seems to have corrected, or at least begun correcting, two of the three things that were most obviously wrong with his campaign.
The first was his intensely negative tone about George W. Bush. Gore's unremitting daily attacks on every word out of Bush's mouth were having approximately no effect whatsoever on Bush's standing. Meanwhile, they were taking a big toll on Gore himself, who looked nasty, negative, and unfair. Gore's advisers had been debating whether the candidate should let up on his opponent for some time. Finally, in late May, according to a Richard Berke story in the New York Times, the candidate himself put his foot down and said enough. Gore has quit his assault addiction cold turkey, not even mentioning Bush's name for the past two weeks or so. As a matter of political choreography, this change was excessively abrupt--the gears of the Gore campaign always grind too loudly--but it's an improvement nonetheless. Instead of leading the attack on Bush by himself, Gore has enlisted various surrogates, or as his campaign calls them, "validators." The job of these people, such as Democratic Sens. Evan Bayh and John Kerry, is to say nice things about the Democratic nominee while stomping on Gov. Bush and his policies.
A second thing that seemed clearly misjudged about Gore's campaign was the candidate's strange failure to do more to associate himself with boom economic times. Gore has made fleeting stabs at taking credit for the country's current prosperity, but it hasn't been a major theme of his campaign--until now. Today's event began with an introduction by former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who credited Gore with being "deeply involved in every major economic decision we made." His credentials thus established, Gore began his own speech with a paraphrase of Ronald Reagan's classic formulation: Are you better off than you were four years ago? "For most Americans," Gore said, answering his own rhetorical question, "I believe the answer is obvious." Gore needs to convince the voters that he is as responsible for what he called "the strongest economy in history" as Clinton, Rubin, and Greenspan. With today's speech, he began the process of doing just that. "None of this happened by accident," Gore declared. "It happened because together with the American people we put into place a brand-new economic strategy." He would do well to repeat the phrase "not an accident" as many times as he has accused Bush of supporting "risky schemes."
Gore's campaign isn't out of turnaround yet. Though the speech today lacked the candidate's signature shrillness, it was full of windy rhetoric and portentous perorations: "Hear me now. ... Come with me, and we will do the right thing." Gore still sounds pompous and pedantic as often as not. He's never going to be an impressive orator or someone who "connects" with the crowd, because he just isn't talented in that way.
But I think Gore may rise above his lack of charm if he takes steps to remedy the third, remaining major problem of his campaign: its curious tilt to the left. In order to cash in his incumbent's advantage on the economy, Gore needs to position himself at the center of the body politic in more or less the way that George W. Bush has been doing. Bush has been successful in casting himself as a moderate despite legitimate doubts about whether he really is one. Yet Gore, who by history and inclination is a man of the center, persists in pitching his campaign more to the Democratic Party's interest-group base than to the independents and swing voters who elected Bill Clinton twice and will decide the 2000 election.
You could read today's speech as a step in the right direction. Gore's emphasis on fiscal discipline, balanced budgets, and accelerated repayment of the national debt is hardly the pitch of a stereotypical liberal. But on social issues like education, Medicare, and Social Security reform, Gore still sounds more like a doctrinaire old Democrat than he does like a new Democrat. But if he can reorient himself as Bush has, Gore will be in solid shape--at least until we journalists all get tired of writing that same old story about his brilliant campaign.