COLUMN ONE : Gore May Be Dull, but to His Party He Shines : Suddenly, his solid image and moderate views are attracting attention--from Democrats scrambling to recover from the November landslide.
“Five point two million new jobs,” the speaker droned. “Tax cuts for 12 . . . million . . . families.”
Standing straight and tall before a huge Texas state flag, Vice President Al Gore had launched once more into his fact-heavy recitation of the oft-overlooked achievements of the Clinton Administration. Not surprisingly, the audience at this recent Democratic fund-raiser was starting to drift. Even musicians in the country band that was up next plucked impatiently at their strings.
Yet if Gore’s oratory is still the verbal equivalent of anesthesia, his place in the hearts of these Democrats was surprisingly high. “I’m inclined to like a dignified, seasoned fellow like this--not likely to pop off,” cooed Ed Kloppe, a chin-whiskered retiree from Travis County.
Julie Cross, a family therapist from Dallas, agreed.
“When Clinton’s gone,” she predicted, “Gore’ll soar.”
Such sentiments are by no means confined to Texas. A man who six years ago made such an uninspiring run for the presidential nomination that Michael S. Dukakis outflanked him even in his native South, Gore is gaining unexpected luster in the eyes of Democrats everywhere.
Since the midterm elections sent President Clinton and his party searching for credibility and a centrist message, Gore has appeared to many Democrats to be a tower of dignity and conviction at a time when such virtues are in desperately short supply.
In one sign that they understand Gore’s new aura, White House tacticians have made him the chief supporting actor in the tug-of-war with the Republicans over public attention. Despite the doubts of other aides, the government-streamlining program that Gore promoted in 1993 has risen to the top of the White House agenda, second only to Clinton’s own proposal for middle-class tax subsidies.
Outside the White House, many Democrats say they believe that Gore offers new hope for the post-Clinton era, which at least some would like to see begin in 1996.
“He’s the one who can bring the party back from the doldrums of a traumatic time,” said Nathan Landow, a former chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party and a longtime Gore enthusiast.
Although he expects Gore to defer to Clinton in 1996, Landow says that “when the Democrats are looking around for somebody to lead them, it’s a very short list. And I believe Al Gore leads them all.”
If Gore’s surging popularity in the party disturbs some Clinton loyalists, who whisper about the possible need to nudge the vice president toward the sidelines, the Clintons seem to harbor no such feelings. Since the election, both the President and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton have distanced themselves from some advisers, but Gore has remained solidly in the inner circle.
While the vice president’s views about the need to cut the federal government, reduce the federal budget deficit and foster greater personal self-reliance are certainly in tune with today’s political tastes, he has also argued for what might be less popular stands.
Within the Administration’s councils, he urged stepped-up military involvement in Bosnia, for example. Similarly, during the 1993 debate over the Clinton economic plan, Gore championed the broad energy tax that pleased environmentalists but frightened others. And he urged Clinton not to compromise on his promise to allow gays to serve in the military, an issue for which Clinton has paid a high price.
Clinton’s aides still believe the President is their best spokesman in the two-year battle for voters that has just begun. But Gore has assets the President lacks, said one Democratic strategist with ties to the White House.
For one thing, he can deliver White House stature and “the Clinton message without the Clinton baggage,” the strategist said. For many Americans, unresolved questions about Clinton’s character and core beliefs stand in the way whenever he speaks.
Gore is “no rip-roaring speaker,” acknowledges Frank Greer, a Washington media consultant who helped fashion Clinton’s communication strategy during the 1992 campaign. “He’s not glib. But for your average person at home, he communicates a certain gravitas, a seriousness and believability.”
Such qualities may have helped Gore in the polls. An NBC-Wall Street Journal survey taken last month showed that his positive ratings bested Clinton’s, 44% to 41%. And his negative ratings of 28% were 11 percentage points lower than the President’s.
White House officials brag that Gore has far more influence than any previous vice president. And in recent days, he has spoken loudly.
He has been a principal voice in the latest efforts to chart a new general strategy for Clinton’s presidency. When Clinton was considering installing his old friend Thomas (Mack) McLarty as Democratic Party chairman in order to ensure perfect loyalty, Gore helped steer him in a different direction. (Clinton last week chose to split the party duties between Connecticut Sen. Christopher J. Dodd and longtime political operative Don Fowler.)
Gore has been central to the U.S. effort to influence Russian policy in Chechnya because his relationship with Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin is stronger than Clinton’s relationship with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.
Although aides say Gore speaks his mind clearly--his reservations about the extent and complexity of last year’s ill-fated health care reform plan are an open secret--he has religiously followed the lead of his predecessors and refused to discuss the advice he gives the President.
Clinton seems to value Gore’s judgment on areas such as handling the media. Gore “will tell him: ‘You should say, ‘x,’ ” said one aide. “And Clinton will go out and, fairly often if not all the time, he will say ‘x.’ ”
Gore hovers so close to Clinton at public events that he has sometimes been mocked as the President’s shadow. But he has taken pains to see that the Clintons and their aides don’t see him as a threat.
In his own public appearances, he sticks strictly to the script, which often makes him sound dull to audiences--but endears him to White House aides.
Still, Gore has not always rated the most visible assignments at the White House. In 1992, he sought stewardship over welfare reform. But White House aides concluded that the issue, central to Clinton’s “new Democrat” image, should be reserved for the President.
Instead, Gore was assigned government reform. He began the project with a bang, demonstrating its necessity by using a forklift to haul stacks of paperwork across the White House lawn.
But the issue seemed to fade in 1994. “He was more visible the first year than the second,” said David Gergen, the recently departed White House counselor.
That changed quickly when the Nov. 8 election convinced many in the White House that cutting back government was actually what they had been sent to Washington to accomplish. Suddenly top aides were arguing that Gore’s government reform needed to be priority No. 1 again.
Gore, it must be said, shows every sign that he is mortified that some Democrats talk about him replacing the man who chose him as his running mate in part because of his reputation for unswerving loyalty. Asked recently if there were any circumstance under which he would accept a nomination in 1996, Gore said he was “absolutely” ruling it out.
“President Clinton is going to be renominated in 1996,” he said. “I predict he is going to be reelected to a second term.”
But at 46, Gore can easily afford to play the long game and wait for the presidential contest in the year 2000.
Of the crowded field of Democrats who sought or seriously considered pursuing the 1992 nomination, just two appear to have any prospects six years from now: Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. Others, including former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas and former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, are all but ruled out by age, health or liberal views that seem out of step with an electorate that continues to move to the political right.
Gore has nourished ambitions to be President nearly as long as the President he serves.
The son of former Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Sr., the vice president was largely raised in Washington, attending exclusive private schools there before attending Harvard and Vanderbilt University Law School. As a two-term Tennessee senator, Gore made himself an expert on the environment and technology, including the “information superhighway,” a term he did much to popularize.
Gore said he temporarily set aside his own presidential ambitions when his then-6-year-old son, Albert, was nearly killed when struck by a car in April, 1989. Gore spent long hours at his son’s bedside, an experience that he said changed his life.
In the 1992 campaign, Gore published an environmental call to arms called “Earth in the Balance” that the Republicans tried to use against him--and that even alarmed some fellow members of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council because of its inflexible tone.
Of course Gore’s new prominence and the admiring chatter about him does not assure that he will realize his long-nourished ambition to be President.
Many Democrats turned to former Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie as their presidential nominee in 1972 because of his appeal four years earlier when he was Hubert H. Humphrey’s running mate in a ticket that nearly captured the White House.
But the 1972 race had barely begun before Muskie demonstrated that, for all his decency and straightforwardness, he could not endure the criticism he would inevitably face as a presidential candidate. Before the New Hampshire primary was over, he had broken into tears and destroyed his candidacy over what today seems relatively mild criticism of his wife.
“He showed that he was just temperamentally unsuited for the strains of a presidential campaign,” said Alan Brinkley, a Columbia University history professor who worked on the Muskie campaign.
Gore’s reserved demeanor seems solid and dignified when contrasted with the garrulous Clinton. But standing alone he can seem merely dull. As a result, although many Democrats are talking about Gore’s unassailability, personal integrity and deeply held convictions, others are wondering how well he will wear.
Gore has tried to show that he’s a regular guy, even a funny one. His speeches contain a long recitation of jokes at his expense: “Al Gore is so boring his Secret Service code name is ‘Al Gore.’ ”
Although he is dogged by complaints he is stiff in public, admirers say Gore’s personal appeal comes through one-on-one. He is known for his skill in balancing a pencil on his nose, for instance. And at a Halloween party he hosted last year, he was elaborately made up as a green-faced Frankenstein’s monster.
At the end of the day, however, friends say Gore is still a man who--unlike his boss--sometimes prefers to sit alone and read a book instead of pressing the political flesh.
His remaining years with Clinton will be vital. As the President rides the roller coaster of popularity and his initiatives are tested by a newly conservative Congress, Gore must strike a balance between remaining loyal to the President and continuing to define his own values and qualities for voters. He must support the Administration’s objectives while not being buried by its failures.
Given those choices, many analysts think that for Gore to win the presidency, his first priority must be to help Clinton.
“He’s had one goal: to do everything to help Clinton and nothing else,” said Roy Neel, a longtime Gore aide who was formerly deputy White House chief of staff. “His prospects are so closely tied to Clinton’s, he’d be crazy to do anything else.”