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CAMPAIGN 2000 | NEWS ANALYSIS

Gore Strives to Blend Old, New Democrat

August 12, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — In substance, Al Gore's campaign agenda departs little from the centrist direction Bill Clinton has charted through most of his presidency. But in style, Gore has set a very different tone for his party.

Gore is betting he can fuse Clinton's "new Democrat" policy approach with a political message that relies more on old Democratic themes--particularly a polarizing populism that frames the presidential election as a choice between "the people and the powerful."

Clinton, though critical of Republicans, matched his centrist agenda with a political language that emphasized bipartisanship and new approaches; in his 1992 campaign, he ran against "brain-dead politics in both parties."

Gore, by contrast, speaks in far more partisan terms even as he advances moderate policy ideas--such as paying off the national debt or demanding more responsibility from absent fathers. At times, it seems as though Gore is trying to combine inheritances from his father--Sen. Albert Gore Sr., a Tennessee populist first elected to Congress during the New Deal--and Clinton, the vice president's most important political patron.

Gore's effort to blend these old and new Democratic approaches raises significant questions for his campaign and a potential presidency.

As a candidate, the risk is that the old liberal music will drown out the more moderate new words, hurting Gore among swing voters.

"It creates a confusing message because people are not quite sure whether Gore is an attack liberal or a centrist Democrat," said Leon E. Panetta, Clinton's former White House chief of staff.

Leaning Farther to Left Than Clinton

As a president, the question is whether Gore's greater comfort with his party's liberal traditions would make him more reluctant than Clinton to challenge Democratic interest groups still resistant to elements of the centrist agenda.

"Substantively, there is much more continuity than change in Gore's approach," says one leading centrist Democrat who asked not to be identified by name. "But politically it's a different message. Gore is much more orthodox politically than Clinton, much more willing to pay homage to the agendas of the traditional interest groups, much less interested in seeking occasions to dramatize his independence from those groups, and much less willing to entertain bold new proposals that may discomfit them." Indeed, Gore has not signaled his independence from party interests nearly as dramatically as Clinton did in 1992, when he appeared at a conference sponsored by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and criticized Sister Souljah, a young rap singer who had made incendiary racial comments.

"Gore has not taken any issue and really advanced from where Clinton was," says Pete Wehner, policy director at the conservative think tank Empower America. "Clinton was willing to take a chance with the liberal base to try to salvage his party. Gore in a way is less gutsy, less willing to confront his base."

Where Gore has broken from Clinton, it's been mostly to embrace more traditionally liberal positions on such issues as trade and gay rights. And Gore has been more firm than Clinton in rejecting reform proposals to constrain the costs of Social Security and Medicare.

Those differences are real, but they are only part of the story. The vast majority of Gore's agenda reconfirms rather than redirects the changes Clinton has imposed on his party--a conclusion underscored by Gore's selection as his running mate of moderate Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. "I don't think there is any light between Clinton and Gore at all," says former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, who's become a leading liberal critic of the administration.

Many key Gore proposals are literally extensions of Clinton initiatives, such as his call for federal subsidies to hire 50,000 more police officers beyond the thousands the administration has already funded. To provide health insurance for working-poor adults, Gore simply wants to make them eligible for the Children's Health Insurance Program that Clinton signed into law in 1997.

But the Clinton framework guides Gore in a more basic sense. Clinton has argued that Democrats can juxtapose fiscal responsibility with government activism, as shown by his support of both a balanced federal budget and new spending in areas such as education. At the same time, he has insisted social policy must balance opportunity and responsibility--through programs such as welfare reform that invest in job training and child care but then demand work from those receiving public assistance.

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