At the end of Al Gore's economic speech to the Brookings Institution Wednesday morning, somebody asked whether he would run for president. There's no point in asking this question anymore. Gore's speeches attacking the Bush administration have become functionally indistinguishable from the early stages of a presidential campaign. If criticizing the president and presenting an alternative is the measure of seriousness about running for president, then Gore is right now the most serious candidate for that job. His speech at Brookings outlined an implicit message strategy for 2004.
1. Run the numbers. You can argue about who's responsible for the lousy economy, but you can't deny that it's lousy. In his recent floor speech slamming Bush, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle recited an impressive array of falling indicators, led by jobs, 401(k)s, and deficits. The list Gore read Wednesday was shorter but no less potent. With numbers like these, the out party starts with a strong prima facie case against the in party.
2. Debunk the 9/11 excuse. The most crucial debate in any election tends to be about the latest economic trend, one or two policy decisions to which that trend might be attributed, and which of those decisions deserves the credit or blame. In the '80s, the debate was about Reagan's tax cuts, the boom, and the deficit. In the '90s, the debate was about Clinton's 1993 budget and tax legislation, the Republican takeover of Congress, and the soaring stock and job markets. In the '00s, the debate is about Bush's tax cuts, 9/11, the collapse of the Nasdaq, and the recession.
Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and other administration spokesmen routinely blame the recession on pre-Bush economic factors and 9/11. From Gore's standpoint, it's essential to destroy this theory. In his speech at Brookings, Gore asserted that no "objective" economist shared Bush's belief that 9/11 caused the current economic doldrums. Gore also repeated his own theory that the 1993 Clinton "economic plan" caused the boom of the 1990s. The virtue of this argument is that it requires no obvious ideology. It simply says: Under me, everything was great. Under Bush, everything stinks.
3. Parlay "bad times" into "wrong direction." Pointing out that times are bad isn't enough. Bush admits times are bad, but he says his tax cuts will turn things around. Gore needs to spread suspicion that the tax cuts are taking us in the wrong direction. In his speech Wednesday, Gore compared Bush to "a lost driver who won't stop to ask for directions." He also used a football analogy, calling for halftime adjustments: "We're at halftime in this term. The game plan's not working." Of course, if Gore had really wanted halftime adjustments, he probably would have done more to campaign for Democrats in 2002. Gore wants to lead Bush in the fourth quarter—i.e., 2004—not at the half. He doesn't want Bush to fix his game plan. He wants Bush to stick with that plan and lose.
4. Link fiscal decline to corporate scandal. The issue that cuts most clearly against Republicans is the accounting fiascoes at Enron, WorldCom, and other once-giant companies. The public refuses to believe that Democrats are equally to blame for these scandals, just as it refuses to believe that Democrats are strong on crime or defense. That's the voters' prejudice, and they're stickin' to it. But Democrats have had difficulty pinning specific corporate shenanigans on specific Republicans, so now they make the link by analogy. In Wednesday's speech, Gore accused Bush of false revenue projections and hidden expenses. Gore called this "Enron accounting."
5. Exploit the liberal advantage on economics. When politicians debate taxes, conservatives have a natural advantage, because most people want the government to take less. But when politicians debate a weak economy, liberals have a natural advantage, because most people want the government to do more. Democrats look like the party that will do something, and Republicans look like the party that will do nothing. The argument that business moves in cycles and that the government can't unilaterally fix the economy is a political loser. Gore's speech fully exploited the appearance of Republican indifference. "Cheerleading will not restore confidence," said Gore. He added that recovery "takes more than words. It takes action."
6. Use Bush's campaign promises to cripple his defenses. A president saddled with a bad economy can defend himself in two ways. He can blame factors beyond his control, or he can attack the other party. Gore aims to deprive Bush of both responses. At Brookings, he pointed out that in the 2000 election, Bush pledged to "change the tone" and to usher in a "responsibility era." Given those promises, said Gore, it's hypocritical of Bush to deny responsibility for the bad economy and to attack, through Republican surrogates, Democrats who criticize Bush's economic policies.
7. Give the GOP nothing to shoot at. The most interesting pattern in Gore's speeches has been his refusal to say exactly where he stands. On Iraq, he urged Bush to consult Congress and American allies but never made clear where Bush should draw the line. On the economy, he again offered only a vague alternative. Twice in the question-and-answer session after his speech, he was asked whether Bush's tax cuts should be repealed. All Gore would say was that Bush should "reassess" them. That line may work in the second quarter of the ballgame. In the third, it'll start to wear thin.