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To Win, Al Gore Must Lace Up the Gloves to Fight Jabs From the Left

The throwback messages from the podium last week made it clear that Al Gore, if he wins, would face much more assertive demands from the left. At the convention, Gore didn't show much capacity to keep those challenges under control. If Gore, as president, couldn't do a better job, he would be in for a long four years.

August 21, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

Remember the classic Frank Capra movie "It's a Wonderful Life?" When the angel Clarence shows George Bailey what life would have been like if he had never been born, his peaceful hometown of Bedford Falls had been transformed into the garish nightmare of Pottersville.

For much of last week, the Democratic gathering in Los Angeles was the Pottersville Convention: the eerie vision of what the Democratic Party might have been had Bill Clinton never been born.

Clinton's signature insight was understanding that in both policy and political terms the party would be more successful if it could integrate conservative priorities of fiscal and personal responsibility into the liberal vision of an activist government working to expand opportunity for the needy and the middle class. As even Clinton privately complained to friends, most of the speakers last week were happy to emphasize the activism; the responsibility didn't fare as well.

One after another, speakers promised new spending; other than Clinton and Vice President Al Gore themselves, few talked about balancing the budget. Speakers repeatedly demanded that the country show more compassion for those left behind, as if social policy should be built on guilt. Hardly anyone trumpeted the competing Clinton notion of mutual responsibility: that government should help those helping themselves.

Speakers competed in their commitment to protect legalized abortion; the audience didn't hear much about reducing out-of-wedlock births or encouraging adoption. (The crowd might have booed if anyone had repeated the Clinton formulation that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare.") And praise for free trade, a cornerstone of the Clinton economic strategy, was as rare as praise for George W. Bush's record in Texas.

Particularly retro were the Tuesday night speeches from Bill Bradley and Jesse Jackson. Both made their obligatory endorsements of Gore, and Jackson enthusiastically denounced Bush. But both Jackson and Bradley seemed most intent on pressing the left's case against Clintonism.

Save for the few sentences praising Gore, Bradley's speech reprised his primary campaign arguments against the vice president. One point was most telling. As he did during the primary race, Bradley admirably demanded that the country focus on the continuing problem of childhood poverty. "Most of us would never turn our backs on a starving child, yet everyday we ignore 13 million poor children in America," he said.

But if Bradley had wanted to help Gore--or even acknowledge reality--his tone would have been very different. Bradley might have said something like this: "Over the past five years, under President Clinton and Al Gore, childhood poverty in America has declined more than in any five-year period since the late 1960s. If you are a child living in a family with two married parents, you now have a less than 1-in-14 chance of being poor. And in 1993, President Clinton proposed--and Vice President Gore cast the tie-breaking vote to pass--a historic increase in the earned-income tax credit that has lifted millions of more people out of poverty.

"But, my friends, there is still much more to be done. Which is why Al Gore wants to raise the minimum wage, expand the earned-income tax credit further, give working-poor families more help paying for child care and health care, and demand more responsibility from absent fathers."

Instead Bradley (like Jackson) sought to put the record in the worst possible light by thundering: "Tonight, nearly one-fifth of the children in this country are ill-fed, ill-housed and ill-educated." When Bradley finished, the Gore staffers operating the rapid response room under the convention floor jokingly wondered if they needed to issue a rebuttal.

Maybe that's to be expected of Bradley, whose commitment to causes other than his own has always been shaky. But what explains vice presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman's strangely neutered performance Wednesday night?

As chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of centrist Democrats, Lieberman has been at the forefront of efforts to steer Democrats toward the middle. Presumably Gore chose Lieberman not only to signal personal distance from Clinton, but his commitment to that centrist policy direction.

But Gore's staff had Lieberman spend most of his week trying to prove his bona fides as a "real Democrat" in command performances before a gantlet of liberal interest groups; at times it seemed as if Lieberman was apologizing for all the reasons Gore ostensibly picked him in the first place.

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