TCS Daily

The Perils of Recycling

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - August 14, 2002 12:00 AM

Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, the Democratic party's nominee for Vice President in 2000, recently took on his former patron, Al Gore, by saying that Gore's populist tone helped sink the Democrats' electoral chances during the 2000 election. In front of an audience at a Democratic Leadership Council convention, Lieberman complained that Gore's us-versus-them rhetoric alienated valuable constituencies, and separated Democrats from the perceived economic policy successes of the Clinton years.

Gore responded to Lieberman's criticism by arguing that the events of the past year and a half have vindicated his populist message. The Democratic party "should fight for 'the forgotten middle class' against the 'forces of greed,'" Gore says. "Standing up for 'the people, not the powerful' was the right choice in 2000."

It is clear that Gore will continue to beat his populist drum in the run-up to the 2002 midterm elections, and before his anticipated run for the Presidency in 2004. Meanwhile, Lieberman will take a more centrist stance as he positions himself to potentially challenge his old benefactor for the Democratic nomination.

Gore could well win a one-on-one contest with Lieberman for the nomination in 2004. He continues to enjoy strong name recognition, and will likely receive more than adequate funding to finance another run (despite the reluctance of many Democratic party members to give money to a man whom they believe has already blown a perfect chance to win, back in 2000). Moreover, Gore's pitch against "the powerful" will be well received by Democratic party activists who dominate the primaries and caucuses that will determine the next Democratic nominee.

But that does not mean that Gore's vision is the right one for the Democratic party - or for the country - to follow.

First of all, a Gore nomination does not necessarily translate into a victory over President Bush. If he wins the party nomination, Gore will have to reconcile his populist message with the need of any major party nominee to race back to the political center. Gore failed to do this in 2000 - indeed, it hardly appeared that he was interested in trying. This means that President Bush could have the electoral middle open to him once again in 2004, allowing the President the luxury to paint Gore as being outside the mainstream.

Much of the problem with Gore's brand of politics is that it assumes the wrong lessons from history. Gore likens his populism to the successful campaign message advocated by Bill Clinton in 1992. Slate's William Saletan, however, rightfully sees things differently:
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.

As Saletan demonstrates, Gore seeks conflict with his populism, while Clinton always sought consensus. Clinton understood the basic truism that politics is a game of addition, and worked to add as many people as possible to what ultimately amounted to winning coalitions in both 1992 and 1996. Gore, on the other hand, believes that politics is a game of subtraction, where politicians seek to remove certain actors from their coalitions.

It is little wonder, then, that Gore was bereft of the kind of business support that Clinton enjoyed in both of his successful campaigns. Clinton was able to attract Wall Street support and confidence, thus allowing him to make significant inroads with the growing American investor class. But in 2000, Gore drove the investors away by repeating his class warfare rhetoric at every turn.

But more important than any political calculation is a practical one - class warfare rhetoric hinders responsible governance. Whatever Al Gore's predilections for populism, a President must work closely with the business community - especially given the dramatic increase in the investor class over the past decade. It would be difficult for a President Gore to inspire confidence and develop a close working relationship with the business and investor classes after tirelessly trumpeting his populist message.

Again, the Clinton example is instructive here. Through the employment of a series of popular Treasury Secretaries (Lloyd Bentsen, Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers), Clinton was able to win Wall Street and the investor class over to his side. The Clinton-Gore campaign team was consistently able to win business support, including from the then-burgeoning tech center. Additionally, the Clinton Administration was able to benefit from a partnership with business in dealing with economic matters. But if Gore continues in his un-Clintonian embrace of class warfare, he will not enjoy such a luxury.

Al Gore is reusing a failed political message and governing idea. This is one instance where recycling is truly harmful to the (political) environment.



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