He voted against expanding union picketing rights. He opposed gun control and federal funding for abortion. He backed local water projects that environmentalists despised. In short, as a young member of Congress, Al Gore did what might be expected of someone representing a rural, conservative district in Tennessee.
Now, however, as Gore seeks the Democratic presidential nomination, rival Bill Bradley has spotlighted the contrast between the vice president’s congressional voting record and his more liberal pronouncements on the campaign trail. And that has raised a central question that may outlast Bradley’s own flagging campaign: Does Gore’s record reflect the flip-flopping of an ambitious opportunist or the maturation of a public official who has adapted to changing constituencies in changing times?
Gore acknowledges that he cast some votes in Congress he would not cast today. So far, that does not seem to have hurt him politically.
“Most people who enter politics relatively early in life go through a journey,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who is neutral in the race. “At some point as they mature, they become more settled personas. At this stage it makes more sense to take Gore for who he is now, and most voters are quite content to do that.”
Still, Gore’s congressional votes provide a reminder that on many issues, ranging from defense to some social issues, Gore was more conservative than the liberal majority that dominated the Democratic Party while he was in Congress. Indeed, he was a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of centrists dedicated to pulling their party away from its traditional liberal moorings.
First elected to the House in 1976, Gore represented a district in east Tennessee until he won a seat in the Senate in 1984. He won reelection in 1990, then left the Senate in 1993 after being elected Bill Clinton’s vice president. While his record during those years was generally more conservative than Bradley’s, Gore was never a classic “Boll Weevil” conservative Democrat--the faction that fought their party’s liberal leadership and made common cause with Republicans during the Reagan administration. Even during his House career, Gore was one of the least conservative members of the Tennessee delegation.
“Is Gore a conservative? Not by any stretch of the imagination,” said Amy Isaacs, national director of the Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal lobbying group. “But that doesn’t make him any raving liberal.”
The ADA’s analysis of Gore’s entire congressional voting record found that he sided with the group on key votes 66% of the time. But on selected issues such as abortion rights and defense policy, he departed from the liberal line more often than that, the analysis found.
Bradley has scored Gore not only for his votes in Congress, but for trying to minimize how much his positions have changed over the years. The former New Jersey senator created a Web site expressly to detail changes in Gore’s voting record. In Wednesday’s debate in Los Angeles, he continued to attack Gore for voting several times from 1979 to 1981 against new regulations for denying tax-exempt status for schools that practiced racial discrimination. Gore has said he opposed the new rules because they would, in effect, apply quotas in deciding whether a school discriminates and rebuffed Bradley’s demand that he repudiate those votes.
On abortion, however, Gore acknowledges that his position has changed over the last two decades. The National Right to Life Committee has calculated that during his House years, Gore voted with its position 84% of the time, including numerous votes to deny federal funding for abortion. But after he went to the Senate, Gore reversed field and voted with the anti-abortion rights group only twice.
During the current campaign, Gore has insisted that he never opposed a woman’s right to an abortion. He says he eventually dropped his opposition to federal abortion funding because he realized that stance meant that poor women often were denied abortion rights. The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, the leading abortion-rights lobby, has rewarded Gore for his evolution on the issue by endorsing his candidacy.
“He is pro-choice,” said Kate Michelman, president of NARAL. “The fact that he evolved from his time in the House does not make him any less pro-choice today.”
Gore underwent a parallel transformation on gun control. During his House years, Gore received favorable ratings from the National Rifle Assn., casting votes such as one in 1978 to block funding for controversial firearms regulations. Even after he went to the Senate, Gore voted in 1985 for a major bill to relax gun regulations--a bill the NRA called “the most significant pro-gun owners bill of the past quarter century.”
But as a member of the Clinton administration, he supported the 1993 Brady bill establishing a waiting period for handgun purchases, and a 1994 ban on certain semiautomatic weapons. In a particularly dramatic move as vice president, Gore last year cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate on an amendment requiring background checks on all sales at gun shows (a measure that later failed to pass the House).
Gore says his turnaround reflected his response to the rise of gun violence over the last decade--and the fact that he was representing a broader, more diverse constituency. “When I represented a rural farm district in the House of Representatives, there wasn’t a problem perceived by my constituents,” he said recently.
His changed position on guns has earned him the scorn of the NRA. In a critique on its Web site, the group said, “Al Gore is the Janus of the firearms ownership debate in America because, like the god of Roman mythology, he has shown two distinct faces.”
On labor issues, Gore’s record shifted more subtly. His first big labor vote in 1977 was against a bill to expand unions’ right to picket at construction sites, contributing to a surprising defeat for organized labor. But by the time he went to the Senate, Gore voted more consistently with labor and he won the AFL-CIO’s endorsement for his White House quest.
Gore’s position has also evolved on tobacco. While he represented a district and state with many tobacco growers, Gore voted consistently to continue tobacco price supports and opposed a ban on tobacco advertising. But as part of the Clinton administration, he has been one of its most vociferous anti-tobacco critics.
On the environment, Gore’s congressional record was surprisingly mixed in light of his embrace of the issue in the early 1990s when he wrote “Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit,” a book promoting an aggressive environmentalist agenda. His voting record was scored as low as 35% by the League of Conservation Voters while he was in the House. That was mostly because he repeatedly supported public works bills--especially some controversial projects in Tennessee--that environmentalists opposed.
But he won support of environmentalists for his legislative accomplishments on broader issues. For instance, he helped Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and other environmentalists fend off attacks on the Clean Air Act while he was in the House, and added some key amendments to strengthen the law when he was in the Senate.
Gore has consistently staked out a more conservative position than many in his party on defense and foreign policy--subjects he made a central part of his legislative career by becoming one of Congress’ experts on nuclear weapons strategy and arms control. When most Democrats were fighting deployment of the MX missile during the Reagan years, Gore supported its limited deployment in exchange for new arms control efforts and a commitment to an alternative missile. In 1991, Gore was one of 10 Democrats in the Senate to vote for the use of force in the Persian Gulf.
It was on defense issues, in particular, that Gore contributed to the effort by centrists to reposition the Democratic Party in the 1980s. “His political insight was that Democrats had to reassure the American people that they could be trusted to manage the country’s security,” said Will Marshall, head of the research arm of the Democratic Leadership Council.