Al Gore's bogus defense of his populist message.

Politics and policy.
Aug. 5 2002 6:40 PM

What Gore Doesn't Get

Al Gore's bogus defense of his populist message.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

When a vice president backed by a roaring economy runs a class-warfare presidential campaign and loses, most people would call the experiment a failure. Not Al Gore. "Standing up for 'the people, not the powerful' was the right choice in 2000," Gore asserted in a New York Times op-ed published Sunday. "The suggestion from some in our party that we should no longer speak that truth, especially at a time like this, strikes me as bad politics and, worse, wrong in principle."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The targets of Gore's indignation are his former running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and other Democrats who found Gore's "people vs. powerful" message inauthentic and grating. Whether that message makes for good policy will be a topic of debate for years. What's certain is that it was lousy politics and that Gore's defense of it illustrates his ineptitude as a candidate.

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Gore thinks populism is a winner because it worked for his boss. "Bill Clinton and I were right to maintain, during our 1992 campaign, that we should fight for 'the forgotten middle class' against the 'forces of greed,' " Gore writes. The quote is from Clinton's nomination acceptance speech, which Gore likens to his own acceptance speech eight years later. But the two speeches are as different as the two outcomes.

Clinton didn't impugn the motives of Republicans. He accused them not of siding against ordinary people but of failing to help. According to Clinton, George Bush the elder was "caught in the grip of a failed economic theory," had "forgotten" the middle class, and was too timid to "take on" special interests. Clinton showed little appetite for beating up these interests. He just wanted them out of the way so that ordinary people could live better. The point was to build up, not to tear down; to "put people first," not to put the rich in their place. Corporations weren't evil just because they were powerful; all Clinton asked was that they join his "New Covenant" of mutual responsibility.

Clinton's populism wasn't just tempered; it was circumscribed. His campaign was about solving problems, not picking sides. "The choice we offer is not conservative or liberal. In many ways, it's not even Republican or Democratic," he told his 1992 audience. "One sentence in the platform we built says it all: 'The most important family policy, urban policy, labor policy, minority policy and foreign policy America can have is an expanding, entrepreneurial economy of high-skill, high-wage jobs.' " Clinton also emphasized national unity. "We don't have a person to waste," he argued. "There is no them; there is only us."

That isn't the populism Gore preached in 2000. Gore's message was all about us and them. Republicans were sinister, he implied: "They're for the powerful. We're for the people." Gore told voters what he was for, but he spent far more time than Clinton talking about what he was against: vouchers, big tax cuts, and a list of enemies headed by "Big Tobacco, Big Oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, [and] the HMOs." In a Gore administration, the good would be rewarded, and the wicked would be punished. "I'll fight for tax cuts that go to the right people, to the working families," Gore vowed.

Like Clinton, Gore said he would fight to help ordinary people. But Gore seemed more interested in fighting than helping. "I've taken on the powerful forces, and as president, I'll stand up to them, and I'll stand up for you," he proclaimed. In the environmental war, he boasted, "I've never backed down, and I never will." To Gore, conflict seemed noble. "The presidency is more than a popularity contest," he said. "It's a day-by-day fight for people.Sometimes you have to choose to do what's difficult or unpopular. Sometimes you have to be willing … to pick the hard right over the easy wrong."

This love of fighting was exactly what Clinton criticized in 1992. "The Republicans have campaigned against big government for a generation," he observed. "They've run big government for a generation, and they haven't changed a thing. They don't want to fix government; they still want to campaign against it, and that's all." Besieged by Republican attacks on Arkansas, Clinton smiled and talked about lifting people up rather than tearing them down. The objective, as Clinton described it, wasn't a victory of one group over another but a nation in which "no one is left behind."

Did that message play an important role in 2000? It certainly did. It helped elect George W. Bush.

A few weeks after the 2000 election, the Institute for America's Future, a leftist think tank, released a poll designed to show that Gore's populism hadn't cost him the election. The survey, conducted by Gore's pollster Stan Greenberg, offered people who had voted in the election a choice between Gore's "populist" message and Bush's "anti-government" message. The populist message, as read to respondents, began with the words "Al Gore says" and went on for 100 words about prosperity, values, and balancing the budget. Nowhere did it mention the words Gore had used to sum up his candidacy: "the people" and "the powerful." The poll didn't show that Gore's populist rhetoric had worked. It showed that his own pollsters suspected it had failed.

And they were right. Buried in their survey report and separated by nine pages were a pair of findings that underscored the failure of Gore's business-bashing. Given a list of 15 reasons to vote for Gore, of which each respondent could choose three, 12 percent of respondents chose "his willingness to stand up to the HMOs, drug and oil companies." Meanwhile, given a list of 16 reasons to vote against Gore, 17 percent chose "his attacks on HMOs, drug and oil companies."

Gore is wrong. His angry populism helped cost him the 2000 election. He doesn't understand this because he can't see the differences between Clinton's populism and his own. He's still arguing about it because he thinks fighting is noble. And he's doing it in such a pious way, quoting himself and selectively quoting others, because, as the 2000 presidential debates demonstrated, his driving imperative is to prove that he's right and his opponents are wrong. Any one of these flaws would be sufficient to justify denying him the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. Take your pick.

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