With Al Gore's Sunday Oped in the Times and Joe Lieberman's comments at the DLC conclave in New York, it seems we're now going to again revisit this question of just what role Al Gore's populist turn did or didn't play in the outcome of the election.
Tonight I read Will Saletan's take on Gore's Oped -- which was, shall we say, rather negative. Will's piece troubled me on many levels.
First -- I think this is fair to say -- was Will's unwillingness to take up the question of whether what Gore was saying might actually be true -- true, that is, in the sense of reflecting an accurate representation of the political and economic world we live in. Troubling to me on a deeper level, however, is how much what Will said represents a deep consensus among Washington politicos and journalists and why this should be so.
For my part, I think the 'evidence' -- if you can call it that -- for whether Gore's populism helped him or hurt him is ambiguous. His convention speech gave him a big and -- more important -- sustained bounce out of the convention. That fact is hard to square with his populist turn being a political loser.
On the other hand, he's not in the White House. And even if you believe, as I do, that he really did win the election, the results were still close to a tie. And one would figure that with a politically potent message (if that's what it was), a strong economy and all the rest, he should have won by a good margin. As I said, the evidence is ambiguous. But to Will, there's simply no question that it was a political loser. Not just that, either: to Will, the way Gore has stuck to the message reveals his various character flaws.
I'm very ambivalent about all of this: whether Gore's message makes for good politics, how I personally think that rhetoric sounds, all of these things. But one thing I am quite clear on is that hyper-educated, upper-middle-class folks -- i.e., almost all journalists -- have never, through the course of American history, been the people for whom Populist rhetoric resonates. That's an incontestable fact. It's one that's important to keep in mind. And I think it's seldom kept in mind.
I don't mean to pick on Will, who I consider a great writer and a good friend. I have to confess that when I read Gore column, I found it a touch jarring, even as I agreed with much of it. Another friend of mine who is quite sensible, but also rather left in her politics, told me last night that she found what Gore wrote grating and inauthentic.
In any case, I want to write about this more. But not having more time tonight, let me reprint what I wrote the night of the convention speech itself in the now-defunct (and no longer able to be linked to) Feed Magazine. It captures much of what I still think about this topic.
IN THE DWINDLING aftermath of a major political speech, like the one Al Gore delivered Thursday night, journalists circle and buzz around one another comparing notes, trolling for insights: What did you think? Too fast? Too starchy? Too long? Too short? Brilliantly populist? Stupidly populist? Unvarnished first impressions can rapidly get turned on their head if the tide of opinion in these writerly conclaves runs too hard against them. But there's another complication. Most reporters, who have what amount to the ringside seats, actually watched Gore speak from a range of oblique angles off to the side of the podium. The only images that really count are the tight-in television close-ups, since, aside from the few thousand souls in the Staples Center, that's all anyone will see. And then one more complicating factor. Swing voters, those all-important voters whose votes are actually up for grabs, are notoriously haphazard and indifferent in their attention to politics. Many will only see the speech in the clips and sound bites filtering through the nightly news. And those who watch it in full will receive it with minds uncluttered by all the thoughts of political junkies. All of which is to say that professional observers often have a terribly difficult time grasping how such a speech will be received by its intended audience.
More on this soon ...
Yes, the errors of the vice president's presentation and delivery were apparent. Gore often rumbles over well-crafted sentences and tramples all the poetry out of them. His boss can take even a hackneyed phrase and let it dangle suggestively in the air until a dozen meanings reveal themselves. Gore words don't float the same way. But like Clinton's State of the Union speeches, which were routinely panned by pundits but gobbled up by the public, Gore's speech will probably get a much better reception with swing voters than the critics expect.
In the end, Gore decided to go with what he is: serious (a bit over-serious), honorable, good intentioned, and committed -- as his opponent is not -- to pursuing a set of policies most voters support. As a politician so often accused of being phony and inauthentic, all he could do was be himself. And he did it pretty well.
In so doing, he gave a hint of how Gore-ism might differ from Clintonism. More austere. Less emotional, fulsome, and lachrymose. Though Clinton was endlessly ribbed for telling voters he would "feel their pain," it was actually the lodestone of his political power and resilience, the hallmark of his politics of empathy. Polls have consistently shown that whatever else they thought of him, a clear majority believed Clinton understood their problems and cared about solving them.
Gore had a handful of good lines in the speech. Saying he's his own man; poking fun at his over-seriousness but saying the election isn't a popularity contest; dismissing any thought that he deserves to win because of the successes of the last eight years -- these will all stand him in good stead. But most resonant and enduring was his line about the role of the president as the advocate and defender of the interests of everyday people.
What couldn't have been accidental (though I believe it went wholly unremarked) was that this line was almost identical down to the word, almost identical to the words of Andrew Jackson, the first Tennessean ever to become president, more than a century-and-a-half ago. In the early 1830s Jackson articulated the then-novel, even heretical, notion that the presidency, not the Congress, was the most representative branch of government, the first among equals in the calculus of democratic government. The presidency "is the only job in the Constitution that is charged with the responsibility of fighting for all the people, not just the people of one state or one district, not just the wealthy or the powerful, all the people; especially those who need a voice, those who need a champion." Those are Gore's words, but they echoed Jackson's almost exactly.
The fact that this historical and ancestral allusion is plopped down in the middle of the text, with no clear acknowledgement, is somehow typically Gore.
Truth be told, for better or worse, most journalists react to populist rhetoric like a shot of vinegar when they expected gin. But this may be the closest that Gore could get to Clintonian "feel your pain" and yet still be, in some sense, very much himself. Will voters find this hopelessly retro? Maybe. The weirdness and the promise of Gore are the contradictions at the heart of these populist inclinations. He's a New Economy technocrat, raised at the heart of government, with a privileged education. He also comes from poor Tennessee farm folk and he's the dutiful son of a man who was the most authentic sort of border-state Southern populist politician. From the start of his campaign, Gore has veered from making that combination the best of all worlds, or the worst. The next two months will decide which it will be. But this speech was a good start.