Al Gore's campaign stagnates

Seemingly uncomfortable as a front-runner, the vice president is missing a chance to put the presidency in his back pocket.

Published April 25, 2000 11:07AM (EDT)

Is Al Gore pulling a Dukakis? If you've been watching the vice president's campaign over the past eight weeks, it's hard not to think so. The reference of course is to former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the Democrats' lackluster 1988 presidential nominee, who came out of his nominating convention with a double-digit lead in the polls only to let his opponent (the elder Bush) pummel him into oblivion while barely raising a hand in his own defense. You can't accuse Gore of not being a fighter, but after surviving a surprisingly strong early primary challenge from Bill Bradley, a similar malady seems to have once again overcome the vice president's campaign.

Let's rewind for a moment. Coming out of the primaries, Gore had burnished his public image for toughness and resourcefulness by bouncing back from an initial slow start to handily dispatch his sole primary opponent, Bradley, while maintaining overwhelming unity within his party. George W. Bush, meanwhile, came out of the primaries tangled up in a skein of unhelpful associations with the most extreme elements of Republican Party, and seemed eager to assure himself more self-inflicted wounds with the insolent and ungenerous attitude he took toward his defeated opponent John McCain.

With national head-to-head polls showing him finally drawing even with Bush, Gore seized the moment of his Super Tuesday victory speech to reach out to McCain supporters, telling him that their fight was his fight. In the following days he took the audacious, and perhaps ingenious, step of roundly embracing the one topic pundits expected him to avoid, campaign-finance reform, and making it a centerpiece of his campaign.

And then? And then -- well, nothing. Nothing at all.

Aside from an embarrassing jaunt into the Elian Gonzalez mess, Gore has more or less left the field to Bush. And Bush has set about the task of "reintroducing himself" to the American people, meeting with a group of (albeit hand-picked) gay Republicans and rolling out a series of policy initiatives on education, health care, low-income housing and savings for low-income families. The Bush people know they won't be able to match Gore on issues like health care and low-income housing, but that's not really the point. The Bush campaign is trying to get back on the message it was pushing before things got ugly with McCain -- showing voters he's not another one of those scary Republicans in the Gingrich mold, but a new kind of Republican who is really most concerned about bread-and-butter issues like health care.

Tacking to the center makes perfect sense for Bush. But why has Gore given him a free pass to do so with little or no criticism? Why has the Gore campaign been stuck in neutral ever since the vice president wrapped up the nomination? "I can't really describe the sense of stagnation," a Gore staffer recently told me, "but it's just a feeling we all have ... It's sort of this like eerie feeling ... knowing that this stuff is happening, but not being able to latch on to it."

Over the past week a dozen newspaper articles have commented on Gore's stagnant operation and Bush's renewed pitch at defining "compassionate conservatism" as something more than an empty phrase. What's unfortunate for the Gore campaign, however, is that this isn't the first time this has happened. And it may not be the last. It took the whiff of death from the onrushing Bradley campaign to shock Gore into action last fall, finally transforming the vice president's wobbly and bloated campaign into the streamlined operation that trounced Bradley in the winter. Something similar, but less noticed, actually happened at the tail end of the campaign in New Hampshire.

From the moment Air Force Two landed in New Hampshire just hours after Gore's big Iowa win, the vice president reverted to general election themes, not forsaking the digs at Bradley, but conspicuously relegating them to occasional mentions in his numerous speeches and appearances. In other words, when the danger seemed to have passed, he went back to a new version of the cautious and vague campaigning that had hurt him so badly in the past.

On Gore's second day back in New Hampshire, during a visit to a circuit-board manufacturer, he treated the company's employees to a startlingly substantive, but strikingly arcane (read: boring), discussion of how transitional welfare-to-work programs should not only penalize deadbeat dads, but also assist those willing to fulfill their parental responsibilities. But Bradley turned out to still have a bit of life in him, and his late rebound in the polls clearly caught Gore's campaign off guard. Sensing an erosion of the vice president's lead, the campaign scripted a stern retort from Gore. But it was almost too late, and they were lucky to get out of New Hampshire without a major embarrassment.

The glowing reviews that Gore was getting for his campaign skills a month or more ago weren't wrong. What they missed, however, is that Gore has shown himself to be an extremely able but also deeply reactive campaigner. It takes a clearly defined threat to shake him into action. With a clear strategy in hand, Gore can be deadly effective, but he seems to lack those intuitive political skills that might tell him when to shift from one gear to the next, or how to nail down success once it is achieved. He's like a toy robot: Give him his brief, wind him up and he'll drive ahead like an unstoppable force. But unless he marches straight into a brick wall he may never realize when to switch directions.

Sure enough, once Gore wrapped up the nomination and drew even with George W., he simply didn't seem to know what to do. As many of the recent negative articles about the Gore operation have shown, the campaign has been rife with niggling gossip and rumor about possible personnel shake-ups and reshufflings, hints and rumors about tension between campaign chairman Tony Coelho and campaign manager Donna Brazile and so on. But internal dissension like this is almost always a symptom rather than a cause of a mismanaged campaign.

The real heart of the matter is that Gore and his senior staffers don't appear to have an underlying theory of this campaign, a strategy for how to win. It took the Gore people a while to find their strategy against Bradley, but once they did they never looked back. The strategy they settled on was simple -- Bradley was an aloof and inconstant supporter of the Democratic Party; Gore was a fighter who'd been there when things were tough and would fight for the constituencies and programs of the Democratic Party. One needn't agree with that line to realize that it was compelling and played to Gore's strengths while exploiting Bradley's weaknesses.

Last winter, a few days before the New Hampshire primary I asked Gore's message man, Carter Eskew, how well he thought Gore's fighter message would translate into a general election campaign where you're trying to win swing voters who are much less receptive to this sort of partisan, fighting image. At the time he didn't seem to think it would be too big a problem, but that's exactly the problem they're having right now.

Bush's strategy is simple and it always has been: Bank the 35 percent or so of the population that desperately wants someone besides Gore to be the next president; make reassuring gestures on bread-and-butter issues like health care and education to show swing voters that you're a different kind of Republican; and top it off with talk of values and integrity to tap into lingering, ambient desires for a return to normalcy after the scandal-based contention of recent years.

Gore's strategy should be equally simple: Play up the successes of the Clinton-Gore administration, portray Bush as an inexperienced and untested governor who has already committed himself to a massive tax cut that would blow the surplus and endanger key government programs, and keep Bush from tacking to the center by playing up juicy morsels from his Texas record like his signing a bill to allow people to carry concealed weapons in churches, his support for flying the Confederate flag or his inattention to health care in Texas, a state that already has one of the worst records on health care in the nation.

It's really not that complicated.

If recent history is any guide, Gore may wait till he's 10 points down in the polls again before he shocks himself back into action and returns to the fiercely effective campaigning he was doing in January. Reports out of the Gore campaign from earlier this week show him starting to do just that, and with all the advantages he brings to this election, and all of Bush's liabilities, he may well pull off another comeback. But maybe not. Gore is a rock-solid campaigner and on most issues, according to most polls, he's staked out a more popular position than Bush. But unlike his boss, President Clinton, Gore may not have nine lives.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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