Talk about surprise Hollywood endings. After a week in which the corporate mullahs who finance the Democratic Party had turned the LA convention into an obscene moneychase–underwriting parties, sporting events and shopping excursions–Al Gore, the prince of the party, took the stage and attacked the “powerful forces and powerful interests” that subvert the democratic process. His Big Talk was not in keeping with much of the convention. The Republican confab near-perfectly framed George W. Bush’s speech; the tightly controlled variety-diversity show was a good lead-in to Bush’s pitch that he’s a non-Newt GOPer, even though he loves tax cuts for the rich, privatization and school vouchers. But the Democratic convention meandered toward its finale, tossing out cross-cutting themes. Bill and Hill promoted triumphalism, maintaining that they had guided America into a golden age. Ted Kennedy, Bill Bradley and Jesse Jackson focused on the rust behind the gold: the tens of millions of Americans without health insurance, child poverty, the brutal inequity of the death penalty. (When Kennedy called for health coverage for all, the corporate lobbyists and funders sitting in the Staples Center skyboxes did not stand and cheer, as did the delegates below.) Joe Lieberman, the first Jew on a national ticket, celebrated the ever-popular notion “only in America” and left unmentioned most of the conservative agenda of the Democratic Leadership Council he chairs. Harold Ford, the youthful Congressman tapped to be keynote speaker, tossed out Hallmark clichés about the American Dream.
There was no overarching message until Al Gore came along. It was up to Gore to define not just himself, as all the pundits said he had to do, but his party and his campaign. He chose to do it by declaring war–or, at least, a skirmish–against the special interests. It’s easy to puncture Gore’s populist balloon. His speech sounded tinny against the ka-ching, ka-ching of the week. Skeptics can be excused for wondering where Gore the Populist has been during the battles over corporate free trade, the telecom handout bill and other them-versus-us legislative tussles. When he was hustling money for the Clinton/Gore campaigns–and earning the sobriquet “solicitor in chief”–did he tell the big donors that he needed their soft money to fight the power? And why would a populist surround himself and staff his campaigns with corporate lobbyists, as Gore has done for years?
Moreover, consider the populism Gore served up: Medicare drug benefits, a patients’ bill of rights (for those who already have health coverage), modest campaign finance reform that bans but one form of special-interest contribution, more healthcare coverage for uninsured children (but not adults), tax cuts for college tuition, protecting Social Security from Wall Street. That’s about it. No end to corporate welfare. No crusade against the remaining tax advantages for corporations. No paid family and medical leave. No law mandating vacations for workers. No effort to challenge the energy and telecom monopolies. No support for raising the minimum wage to a living wage. No move against Pentagon pork. (Gore is for boosting military spending.) No extensive overhaul of the campaign finance system. No plan for universal healthcare coverage.
Gore’s populist-tinged proposals are not unimportant. But his speech was, at best, populism-lite: “Big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs. Sometimes you have to be willing to stand up and say no [to them], so families can have a better life.” What of the cable companies, the banks, insurance companies, securities firms, the military contractors, the agricultural giants, the telecom biggies, the National Association of Manufacturers, the credit-card cartel, the automakers, the apparel industry? And Gore’s populism may be but his latest phase. Over the years, there’s been Gore the high-tech Democrat, Gore the hawkish Democrat, Gore the green Democrat, Gore the attack-dog Democrat, Gore the “practical idealism” Democrat. Anytime Gore issues a bold pronouncement involving himself, one has to ask, how long will this last?
The early signs were not encouraging. Shortly after the convention, Douglas Hattaway, a Gore spokesman, explained why Gore could perform strongly in the South: “Al Gore is a Southern New Democrat who has long favored a strong defense, welfare reform, fiscal responsibility and values like that.” Hattaway apparently did not feel compelled to cite Gore’s desire to combat evil corporate interests. And an unnamed senior Gore adviser told the Los Angeles Times that once Gore’s populist shtick shores up his standing among white working-class women, he can adopt a more celebratory economic message: “He is going to be a pro-business, pro-growth, pro-technology Democrat.” Just days out of the convention Gore’s spinners were no longer promoting his populism.
For the moment, the main choice is between a populist-lite–or faux-populist, if you want to be harsh–and an authentic corporate conservative. Gore has adopted the rhetoric of his party’s left and a few of its positions, as national Democrats often do when they hit a rough patch. (Progressives are the party anchor, ignored until there’s a storm.) Gore’s postconvention surge in the polls might reinforce his newfound mini-populism–which is both a tribute and a challenge to Ralph Nader–but there’s plenty of time for further reinventions. Gore probably hopes to be seen as an old and new, corporate and populist Democrat. Battle the interests, court the suits. Perhaps this is an effective way of appealing to a wide audience. But it’s also a way of appearing ever-shifting and thus somewhat shifty. Coming out of the convention, he’s a pseudopopulist lacking a strong foundation for his me-against-the-powerful rhetoric. That doesn’t mean he can’t pull off his latest transition. But his convention speech was not buttressed by the convention itself. So the question remains, What will be the legacy of Los Angeles–the corporate fundraising frenzy Gore condoned or the fighting words Gore spoke?