Al Gore could be the ideal candidate for voters suffering from the malady that pundits call “Clinton fatigue.” While lacking Bill Clinton’s considerable gifts, the Vice President is not burdened with his obvious flaws. The only danger is that anyone required to hear another speech like the one Mr. Gore made at the Association for a Better New York breakfast on April 25 may slip from fatigue directly into coma.
Thankfully, he avoided the fraught subject of Elián González and Cuban-American relations, where his previous interjections were so obtuse and destructive. Aside from a brief endorsement of the China trade bill, he stuck to his domestic policy script. But it certainly would have been diverting to hear him explain why he supports commercial and diplomatic engagement with the oppressive Communists in Beijing while continuing to support the opposite policy toward the oppressive Communists in Havana.
Or, had he been better prepared to give a speech in New York City, Mr. Gore might have had something interesting to say about urban affairs, a subject supposedly dear to him and one that has been badly neglected by the Clinton White House. Prodded by his host Lewis Rudin to speak about “infrastructure,” the Vice President didn’t even have the wit to promise a rebuilt Penn Station, a new Second Avenue subway or a rail link from the city to its airports.
After minutes that drifted by like hours, it became painfully plain that saying anything interesting simply wasn’t on Mr. Gore’s morning agenda. Instead, for reasons best known to him and his campaign staff, the Vice President chose an important venue in the nation’s media center to deliver still another long-winded encomium to the marvelous productivity of the information economy and to urge yet again the continuing necessity for fiscal discipline. Harkening back to the bad old days of deficit spending, he insisted that the “confidence of financial markets” must always be the primary objective of Federal policy. He sounded like a reanimation of the late Calvin Coolidge, but without the charisma.
And lest anyone suspect that he harbors any lingering old liberal impulses, Mr. Gore paid special tribute to the former Nixon Commerce Secretary Pete Peterson, the doomsaying deficit hawk who was present in the audience, and also made sure to note his warm feelings toward Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. He dropped Robert Rubin’s name, too. Reassuring, no doubt, to the Wall Street soft-money donors, but not exactly electrifying.
Only when he eventually got around to attacking the “risky” tax-cutting proposals of his Republican opponent did his rhetorical strategy become clearer. He was making a political speech after all, and not just reciting a rote lecture on a particularly dull subject.
Like the President, Mr. Gore preaches fiscal discipline at least in part to disarm the “Republican revolution.” Employing the tropes made so familiar by Mr. Clinton, he refers to spending initiatives as “investments” and insists on paying down the national debt to preserve Social Security and Medicare, rather than bestowing tax cuts on the rich. (The deficit was closed in part by raising taxes on the rich, although Mr. Gore felt no need to remind this well-heeled audience of that particular fact.)
After several years of repetition, however, the Clintonian ideological jiujitsu demonstration is no longer fresh, and the Vice President performs it without the President’s flair. If he hopes to motivate a largely indifferent public this year, this New Democrat needs a new act.
A glimpse of what that act might be came only when Mr. Gore answered a final question from the audience about elementary education. He has been on a listening tour of the nation’s schoolhouses, he explained, trying to gain “insights” from the people who work in them every day.
Surprisingly, this campaign contrivance actually seems to uplift and energize the candidate. He recalled a kindergarten teacher telling him how easily she can determine which pupils have enjoyed the benefits of the Headstart program, and which have not-and his voice began to rise as he promised to fund “universal preschool for every child, every family in this nation.” He had met a master teacher in Michigan whose 19-year-old son just got a job as a Web designer and immediately began to earn twice as much as his mother does after 30 years’ experience, working 12-hour days. To redeem its responsibilities to America’s children, he declared, the baby-boom generation must do what the World War II veterans “who saved the world” did after they returned home: build new schools, reduce class sizes, increase teacher salaries and raise educational standards.
This passionate Democratic appeal earned him the morning’s first sincere applause. Let’s hope he liked that sound better than the tepid claps that greeted his imitation of a Republican.