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The Wrong Stuff

It isn't Clinton's personal politics that has bollixed up Al Gore's campaign; it's the Clintonian way with ideas -- seek consensus and attenuate any fresh notion to death.

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The problem revealed itself at exactly 8:22 p.m., when the youthful Gore soldiers appeared in the press room -- we weren't allowed in the hall itself; we watched on TV monitors -- brandishing a Gore 2000 "Reality Check," an insta&-press release telling us that, contrary to what Bill Bradley had said just moments before, the former senator's health-care proposal would cost $1.2 trillion over ten years, according to an Emory University expert who'd released his report just that day. This was rapid response as only the perfectly greased campaign can do it, and the aides went scampering about waving the releases while pressies reached out eagerly to collect their copies of this obviously crucial evangel.

Over the course of the next 38 minutes, the Gore corps would hand out four more of these. By the fifth, few were scampering, even fewer reaching.

Just a small, throwaway bad idea, these reality checks? Maybe, but a metaphor, too, for the sad and comic insecurity of the vice-president's campaign, in which such massive effort is expended to make everything appear effortless, in which so much planning is undertaken to ensure that all seems natural and organic. It's the Celebration, Florida, of political campaigns, simulated with precision on the advice of the greatest minds in America down to the last (supposedly) randomly placed cobblestone but recognizable as false goods in an instant, evanescent, forgettable, even rather embarrassing.

Gore's problem isn't that he's a stiff. It isn't that his campaign was based in Washington instead of Nashville, or had too many consultants -- though that, too, was a manifestation of the campaign's fakery and lack of confidence. It isn't even Clinton fatigue, except insofar as the Beltway media have instructed Al that he can curry their favor only by bashing the president, which he did the other night even when he wasn't really asked to do so (it was his first question, and the questioner was focused more on the relationship between money in politics and public cynicism).

Gore's problem is far grander than any of these particulars: He fundamentally misconstrues the age. He and all the cooks in his kitchen seem to have decided that the American people want (a) a man of integrity, which they take to mean a man who keeps his hands off the help, and (b) a careful centrist whose proposals are, first and foremost, fiscally responsible.

Gore may yet be proved right, or, to put it another way, he might somehow manage to become the next president simply because he locked up so much early organizational support and because he's a decent man and because those ideas, while scarcely inspiring, are not awful. Yet: Notice how backward-looking both of those tenets are. The first smells of eighties Republican family-values-ism, and anyway is nothing more than the most obvious and superficial sort of reaction to Bill and Monica. The second certainly was true in 1992, when old-style liberalism had lost its credit rating and when the budget deficits were monstrous.

But right-wing family-values rhetoric is a little past its sell-by date lately; furthermore, old-style liberalism is dead and gone, and the budgetary ink is as black as it's ever going to be. So it could just be that, on both counts, Gore has it exactly and fabulously wrong.

Let's grant that Americans want a man of integrity in the White House (when do we not?). But let's say, for the sake of argument, that integrity means more to people than the ability to keep one's hands to oneself. Maybe integrity means vision. Or courage. Or a willingness to say pretty ballsy things -- like the 1964 Civil Rights Act should be amended to include sexual orientation. Bill Bradley said this at Dartmouth, and you can call it pandering to an interest group if you like, and it was; but it was also a good example of the way Bradley is willing to just . . . say things. If he's the nominee, the GOP will smother him in that position, and if he's president, it'll almost surely never pass, because not only are conservatives against it, which is a given, but many liberals are, too -- the black civil-rights Establishment, for example, doesn't want to open up the Civil Rights Act and let the Senate, this Senate, start tinkering with it in any way, shape, or form, gays be damned. Gore hewed to that careful position when asked about gay rights, and you could hear in his response all the hours of lukewarm temporizing that go into negotiating a statement that will safely pass muster with all and offend none. But Bradley just said what he thought. His plea against discrimination was the evening's only emotionally genuine moment, and it drew far and away the biggest applause. Maybe that's integrity, too.

Which ties into Gore's second miscalculation. Just as he wrestles to move away from Clinton on the personal front, he tries to ape him with respect to policy. So his proposals are modest, careful, market-oriented, and so on. But could it be that a majority of people have seen eight years of modest government and can be talked into going for a little more? It's pretty clear that what matters most to people is to elect a president who'll keep this economy blazing along. But it's entirely possible that enough people now believe that with deficits gone and the country doing so well, maybe the time has come to spread some of that wealth around, too.

It's been instructive to watch Bradley move successfully on two seemingly contradictory fronts: gaining the confidence of Wall Street and collecting their dough on the one hand, while on the other proposing some of the most liberal ideas (his health-care plan, his child-poverty initiative) that we've seen since the seventies. Interesting, also, that these Bradley proposals have not been immediately denounced by the pundit class as excessive or out of touch or what have you. There's something not dramatically original but still rather new in his approach, his natural loyalty to the market combined with his demand that its bounty be shared. Call it Liberal CEOism.

Or something else. But whatever you want to call it, it doesn't come from reading polls, which are only as smart as the people who craft the questions in them, or from deciding that the way to loosen up is to kibitz with the audience and tell hoary old jokes about three people arriving at Saint Peter's gate, as Gore actually did in response to a question about managed care. It comes from reflecting on where this country is and where it should go, and being willing to take some chances to move it there. Right now, only one Democrat seems at all capable of doing that.


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