Every four years, the death of the Democratic Left is proclaimed by politicians and pundits attending the party convention. This is a ritual observed faithfully by the conventionally wise convention goers at least since the nomination in 1976 of Jimmy Carter, a moderate Southern governor whose rise was regarded as a portent of liberalism’s demise.
In the days leading up to this year’s convention in Los Angeles, the choice of Joe Lieberman for Vice President and the drafting of a bland party platform both appeared to signify once more the abandonment of old principles for new slogans. Then Al Gore delivered his acceptance speech.
As passionately progressive and populist as anything heard from the mouth of a Presidential candidate since Harry Truman gave ’em hell, Mr. Gore’s words came as a stunning surprise to observers across the spectrum (including those of us who believed that drawing a sharp contrast with corporate Republicanism is the only way for the Democrats to win). During the primaries, he had mostly confined himself to dull, reassuring, Herbert Hooverish remarks that were aimed more at Wall Street contributors than at working-class voters.
But when he picked up his party’s standard, the nominee not only reiterated the Democratic commitment to equity and justice. He went further by identifying the abuse of corporate power as the most important obstacle to those ideals. Suddenly, complacent conservatives thought they heard the hoofbeats of the Bolshevik horde. A Democrat proposes a few rather modest reforms that were achieved in European capitalism decades ago, and immediately these people start whining about “class warfare.”
What Mr. Gore said on the convention’s final evening is evidently beyond the understanding of minds that accommodate only the intellectual equivalent of an on-off switch, a description which unfortunately includes most commentators who attempt to interpret politics in the national media. To them, both Mr. Gore and Bill Clinton are either jettisoning the Democratic agenda entirely or clinging desperately to outdated liberalism. The notion of crafting new responses to new circumstances, always in the service of enduring values, is beyond their comprehension.
Even at this late date, such pundits lack the subtlety to see how both leaders have turned “Republican” ideas-such as the balanced budget, reduction of crime and even reducing welfare rolls-toward the advancement of a traditional Democratic agenda. In his inclination toward free trade, a flourishing private sector and fiscal responsibility, Mr. Gore is a “New Democrat.” In his advocacy of universal health care, public education, environmental protection, retirement security and other concerns of working people, he remains a traditional Democrat. It is a combination considerably less vexed and contradictory than “compassionate conservatism.”
Predictably, Mr. Gore’s powerful populist message was dismissed by the usual media panjandrums. Sitting in the press section behind the podium, I watched the editor of a national newsweekly shaking his head as Mr. Gore spoke, and listened to others like him nitpicking the speech after the balloons dropped. Even more predictably, the instant analysis of the speech by conservative and centrist commentators was sneeringly negative.
The Wall Street Journal complained that Mr. Gore was promoting a “warmed-over nanny state”. Peggy Noonan, author of some of the most vacuous phrases ever to escape a nominee’s lips, thought she “saw the modern Democratic party begin to crumble again in L.A.” Morton Kondracke wrote that the “self-destructive” Democratic nominee had “ceded the political center” to George W. Bush, “and with it, probably, the election.” William Safire, who used to write for Richard Nixon, found Mr. Gore’s address “labored,” “banal,” “fake” and “feeble.” The noted literary critic Robert Novak decried its absence of “political poetry” and went on to denounce the entire Los Angeles proceeding as “a failed convention” which “did not turn around the presidential race.”
The polling data available since Mr. Gore gave his speech suggests that no political punter will ever go broke betting against these brilliant prognosticators. Nearly every published survey showed the Democrat overtaking his Republican opponent and pulling ahead. The latest was taken by ABC News and The Washington Post , which reported the results in the paper’s Aug. 22 edition. The Democratic ticket is now favored by 50 percent of registered voters against 45 percent planning to vote for the Republicans among the same group; when the sample is narrowed to “likely voters,” Mr. Gore leads by eight points.
Aside from the numbers, there was perhaps just a touch of poetry in these events after all. As Al and Joe rafted down the Mississippi, those persistent rumors of the death of liberalism would appear to have been greatly exaggerated.