After the ridicule he endured in George W. Bush's speech at the Republican convention, Al Gore dropped the phrase "risky scheme" from his lexicon. To repeat it after that would have been to embrace self-parody. But since then, the question has been: What line would replace it?
In the past week, Gore has developed a new slogan, one that gets at the same idea that his opponent is a callow, cavalier fellow. Speaking to reporters on his post-convention Mississippi riverboat trip last week, the vice president criticized Bush for trying to weasel out of formal debates. "The American people have a right in this day and time to be respected with an adult, intelligent discussion of what the major issues are," Gore said.
Gore modified the phrase a few days later at a campaign stop in Maryland where he talked about federal support for higher education. "I came here today to tell you specifically, in concrete terms, what I'm proposing, because I believe that in this day and time, the American people deserve to have a serious, intelligent, adult discussion of the choices that we face in this election year of 2000," he said.
Yesterday Gore touched the same note again in the telephone interview with the New York Times about Bush's lack of specificity on the issue of health care. According to the paper, "Mr. Gore used several similar constructions to question Mr. Bush's seriousness. 'What's good for the American people is to have an adult, intelligent discussion of the specifics of these issues,' Mr. Gore said."
Campaigning in Florida, Gore repeated this saying in reference to Bush's lack of a specific plan for providing a drug benefit under Medicare: "You deserve a detailed, adult, intelligent discussion of exactly what the specifics are of the plans that we are proposing," he said.
"Adult, intelligent discussion" is actually a big improvement over "risky scheme." Where the latter phrase conveyed the unwanted implication that Gore was a stodgy, reactionary liberal, unwilling to experiment with new ideas, the former simply emphasizes Gore's reliability. In using it, Gore calls attention to his own maturity, experience, policy specificity, and high IQ while implicitly contrasting them with Bush's corollary weaknesses: immaturity, inexperience, vagueness, and presumably lower IQ. Demanding a grown-up discussion is an effective, non-nasty way of calling your opponent a lightweight because you're not saying he is stupid. You're just telling him to stop being stupid.
I predict we're going to be hearing this phrase a lot.
Photograph of Al Gore by Jim Bourg/Reuters.