What Al Gore must do to win

Joe Conason, Jennifer Dunn, John Judis, Al Franken and a bipartisan panel of advisors tell the vice president how to beat George W. Bush.

By Salon Staff
Published August 17, 2000 6:50PM (EDT)

John Judis, senior editor of the New Republic and author of "The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and the Betrayal of the Public Trust"

Campaigns are won or lost on the basis of comparisons. In 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee, wanted voters to compare his record as an administrator with that of George Bush; instead, the Bush campaign got voters to focus on which candidate was the more patriotic, the more experienced in foreign policy and least permissive toward crime. These were areas in which Bush enjoyed an advantage. Gore must do likewise this year. He enjoys a marginal advantage on social issues like abortion (if he can paint Bush as the candidate of the religious right), but his main effort has to be in two kinds of comparisons:

Economic populism: After the 1988 election, Bush's campaign manager, Lee Atwater, told a New Republic luncheon that if Dukakis had focused from the start on the populist themes that he introduced in the last week of campaign -- "I am on your side," "Main Street" vs. "easy street" -- he would have won the election. Atwater was right, and the conditions are even more propitious this year for a Democrat to wage a populist campaign against a Republican. Clinton has effectively countered the Reagan Republican case against Democratic populism -- that the benefits would only accrue to black welfare cheaters at the expense of the white middle class. (I am sorry to be so blunt, but this was the image that was conjured up.)

Voters once again trust Democrats to watch out for the average American and fear that Republicans will favor the rich. Gore has to ring this bell every chance he gets. He has to make the case that Bush's tax cuts and Social Security plan is being written by Wall Street; that his health plan would be dictated by HMOs and drug companies; that his environmental policy would reflect the priorities of Big Oil; and that his reluctance to embrace campaign finance reform is a result of commitments he has already made to the "special interests."

Many centrist Democrats hate this kind of class appeal, but if Gore can make it effectively, he'll inspire turnout among Democrats and win the key swing voters -- the middle-income Midwestern white males.

In making this kind of appeal, Gore has to avoid the temptation to propose expensive programs of his own that would eat up surplus. Most voters don't feel an urgent need for big, costly programs. I favor a comprehensive national health insurance program myself, and many voters do in the abstract, but I don't think Gore wants to get in a debate about how many trillions of the taxpayers' money it is going to cost. Gore wants to concentrate on the inadequacy and unfairness of Bush's proposals -- and the havoc they could wreak on the boom.

Leadership: During the New Hampshire primary debates, Arizona Sen. John McCain, a man of average height, nonetheless made George Bush look puny. He seemed to shrink before McCain. Gore has to make Bush look small. He has to contrast his own experience as a national leader with that of Bush, who has less national experience than any Republican candidate since oilman Alf Landon, the Republican nominee in 1936 who was trounced by Franklin Roosevelt. Gore has also to remind voters that he was serving in Vietnam while Bush was signing up with the National Guard. He has to insinuate that when faced with a difficult decision, Bush will not be able to figure out what to do on his own, but will have to ask Daddy and his friends.

Gore's principal opportunity to make this case will be during the debates. His temptation in debates will be to skewer Bush; but what he has to do instead is to avoid a brawl and make himself appear to be the adult on the stage, which in fact he is. Voters might think Bush is the nicer guy, but they have to wonder they should entrust the country to him.

U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C.

Point number one, I'd say, Pretend you're sincere. Apparently he's a pretty neat guy on a personal basis, honest and straightforward. But politically one of his Achilles' heels is that he's perceived to be a politician who will wear beige clothes because someone tells him to. He's got a perception problem, at least down South, of being a man for all seasons. I think people believe -- at least back home -- that if you try to please everybody you'll please nobody. And you really are a politician if you try to please anyone.

I'd say he's just got to go ahead and write off certain folks. Which Clinton did masterfully with Sister Souljah in 1992. He went out and said "I'm going to offend a piece of my constituency so I'll have the sincerity thing going." So whether it was contrived or not, it worked. I would say Gore needs a Sister Souljah-type experience to rid himself of this perception that he's a typical political hack trying to please everybody. He also needs to show himself to be, between him and Bush, the guy you'd rather go out and get a beer with. But it is rather late in the game.

Joe Conason, Salon columnist and author of "The Hunting of the President," with Gene Lyons

It's been said before and it will be said again before the week is over, but it bears repeating until this simple fact sinks in: To defeat Bush Republicanism, Al Gore must run a progressive populist campaign, and he should begin that campaign with his acceptance speech at this convention.

The vice president can distance himself personally from his old boss if he thinks that's wise, but he had better not forget what Bill Clinton has always known: Inspiring the party base always requires a convincing rendition of the old-time Democratic religion. That's why the delegates were so happy and relieved to hear from Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy and even Bill Bradley on Tuesday night.

By choosing Joe Lieberman as his running mate, Gore has already placated the suburban New Democrats and reasserted his own centrism. Now he has to give the party's progressive base -- understandably skeptical about this ticket -- sufficient cause to line up behind them the way Republicans have fallen in behind George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. If current polls are accurate, only around 75 percent of self-identified Democrats expect to vote for Gore, while 90 percent of Republicans are backing Bush; if Gore possessed the same solid partisan support as his opponent, the Bush lead would evaporate instantly.

The reasons behind this resistance among Democrats are complicated. A substantial number are anguished by Gore's free trade position. Some have surely been repelled by persistently negative (and often unfair) media portrayals of Gore. A few probably dislike Bill Clinton enough to take out their frustration on his vice president.

Many of the skeptics will be drawn back toward their party as they contemplate the prospect of another Bush presidency. But Gore cannot depend entirely on fear and loathing to put him in the Oval Office; and if he does, then he doesn't deserve to win. Nor can he present himself merely as a sober-minded, responsible (and utterly boring) fellow who will make sure those deficits don't balloon again. Americans want a president, not an accountant.

A Democrat needs to speak up about decency far too long deferred -- about achieving universal healthcare and quality public education and eradicating poverty in this wealthy nation. For the party base that he has to secure, that message will provide its own charisma.

U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Wash.

He needs to solidfy his base. He needs to stop all this stuff with Maxine Waters and Loretta Sanchez that are just distractions.

Randy Tate, vice president of Republican affairs for Voter.com and former executive director of government relations for the Christian Coalition

First he's got to get out the shadow of Bill Clinton, which has been following him like a dark cloud. Bill Clinton's been in town longer than Al Gore has. He also has to deliver his speech tonight in a way that connects with the American people. Unlike Clinton, he's had a lot of trouble there.

It's been the reinvention convention. He's changed his suits, his campaign chairman and the way he styles his hair. The one thing he can't change is his association with Bill Clinton. Gore's even losing ground among other Democrats. Voter.com did a poll after [Tuesday] night's speeches, and his support among conservative Democrats dropped 10 percent. This week he's meeting with his base, trying to secure the endorsement of the Black Caucus and the United Auto Workers. He got them, but that's something you're supposed to do in March, not in August.

Because he's still trying to solidify his base, he hasn't reached out. He's got a 20 point deficit with independents. If he can't secure his base, there's no way he can get the Reagan Democrats back home.

Jodie Evans, Shadow Convention manager, 1992 Jerry Brown for President campaign manager

I would tell Al Gore that what would really electrify people and make them passionate about electing him president is for him to get real about the issues. I know what it's like in the situation he's in. You're desperate, you're hungry, winning is out there and what has gotten you this far is your priority. And for him those are big contributors, big money. He doesn't relate well to activists, to the grass-roots community. It's not something he understands.

He would need to get real about campaign finance reform, about the environment, about the deficit between rich and poor, about the issues that nobody talks about that are undermining our society. And he would need to look at them in a very smart way. He wouldn't need to have the answers but to at least ask the question. He doesn't do so now, he pretends they don't exist. To get real on campaign finance reform he'd have to quit taking money from the big corporations, and say, "I see what it did to Clinton."

But I couldn't have this conversation with him because he doesn't think that way. It's the Democratic Leadership Council. They think that power is with the corporations. That's why they created it. They broke away from the progressive part of the party for just that reason. So I don't think I'd ever have that conversation with him. It's not who he is, it's not what he creates, it's not his vision.

Al Franken, comedian and author of "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot"

I think Al Gore should just relax. He can learn something from Joe Lieberman, who has a very relaxed manner that can be very appealing. You know, the president Monday night seemed very relaxed. It demonstrated the benefits of relaxing. There was one telling thing I read in the New York Times profile on him, in which he was in a debate in 1988, and he was giving a great answer in complete sentences and paragraphs. And his father proudly said, "You know, you can just hear the commas." I think there might be something early on where he was taught that when you communicate with people you should take pride in speaking in complete sentences and paragraphs, and presenting ideas in a rational and well-ordered way -- not necessarily what I'm doing right now.

What do I do to relax when I'm nervous in public? It's not very complicated. I say "relax," you know, and I'm not always successful. I wouldn't pretend to tell him how to do it. He's been doing this a long, long time, and he's going to be who he is. Probably what he should not do is take my or anyone else's advice. That would be my advice.

Geoff Garin is president of Peter Hart and Associates, a Democratic polling firm.

The first thing is that Gore has to give voters a much clearer sense that there are important differences on the issues that really matter to them. I don't think the stakes for this election are at all clearly defined in people's minds. One of the barriers Gore faces is the feeling that voters have that they don't have really much at stake or at risk in this election.

Bush has two liabilities in voters' minds that ought to be the obverse of Gore's strengths. People are skeptical that Bush has the experience and background that a president needs. And Bush's other liability is that people will think he will always govern on behalf of well-heeled interests. Gore should say he is somebody who will fairly assess who's right, rather than always come out on the side of the special interests. That ought to be a central theme.

When you ask people: What's the quality that will make Al Gore a good president? there ought to be one a clear simple answer to that. Not a hundred, but one simple answer. My answer would be that this is a person who is able to look ahead of the curve and understand what's right and important to build better future for people.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, co-chair of the Congressional Women's Caucus

It's still early, and a lot of people have not focused on the issues. The differences are stark; the differences are deep. And I believe when America's men and women, vetting the record of achievement, what they have stood for, what they have done with their lives, and what they will continue to work for in the future for the future of America, then Al Gore will win. When you get to the debates and people focus on the issues and see the clear difference between the Democratic and Republican parties, I truly believe women will be voting in large numbers for Al Gore -- Republican women, Democratic women and independent women.

Make no mistake about it -- choice hangs by a single vote on the Supreme Court. And with one appointment, we could lose that right. And it's not that we might lose the right to choose, we will lose the right to choose. George Bush says that his favorite Justices are [Antonin] Scalia and [Clarence] Thomas. And women have to realize that, and that message has to get out, because when Gore wins, women win.

Ed Phelps, CEO, BlackPolitics.com, an Atlanta Web site devoted to issues of concern to African-Americans.

I think Al Gore has to demonstrate inclusion and accountability. In addition to including minorities in his campaign, he should focus on issues like stopping redlining and giving equal access to capital in the marketplace. To show accountability he should basically stand up at his first major mistake as a candidate, and say "You know what, I screwed up on that one."

He also has to do more to show who he is. Al Gore's personality is still becoming visible. You don't know who the heck Gore is right now, and that's his job between now and November. He's riding on Clinton waves. But at some point the closer we get to pulling the lever, you're going to need to have some idea of who he is. I think frankly he wins by default with minorities. This is a serious case of the lesser of two evils, and there's a wide gap there. But I think to really assure some turnout, he really has to get people comfortable with who he is. I would advise him to stop being a politician and to start talking from his gut and his hip, to shoot from the hip a little more, to tell it how he sees it and not be afraid to rattle some cages.

Alan Dershowitz, attorney and author.

In one word, Al Gore needs debates. Bush is terrified of debates. Bush is the famous debate ducker. Gore has to hit him hard for being the debate ducker. The debates have to be specific, content based, and he has to persuade Americans that a nerd is good for president, that we want someone works hard and thinks deeply. He should ask this question: Would you hire George W. Bush to be your doctor or your financial advisor? Would you hire a doctor like Bush? No! He's not qualified. Would you want to be in a fraternity with him? Sure!

But when you're picking a president, you want to use the same criteria you use to pick a doctor or financial advisor. You want a nerd who will sit by a machine all day thinking about boring subjects. I want a doctor who reads the medical journals. And when I pick a doctor, I always pick the ugliest one, the one who didn't make it on his charm.

Every poll shows that the country supports Democrats on issues, but they think Bush is more charming, maybe a better leader -- all those things that are very hard to quantify. The best issues for Gore are healthcare, the economy and who benefits [in times of prosperity]. The thing that's always been paradoxical to me is why poor people vote for a party that says they're going to work for the rich people. Why would poor people vote for a party that would abolish the inheritance tax? I know my kids would want to, but I've told them that if they vote for Bush, I'll give all my money to charity.

I don't think the Democratic Convention will give Gore the kind of bounce he thinks he'll get. What he needs is chutzpah, boldness. He needs to act as if he's behind and come up with innovations and bold statements. His selection of Lieberman was bold, but he has to do more of that.

Bill Zimmerman, political consultant and campaign manager of California's Proposition 36, a ballot measure to promote treatment rather than incarceration for drug offenses.

The presidential election will be determined by the independent voters in the middle. The Democrats will vote for the Democrats, Republicans for Republicans. So the question is what you can do to impress an overwhelming number of nonpartisan voters. Those voters are concerned about campaign finance reform. You can see that in the response to John McCain. And they are concerned about the drug war. Eighty percent of the people in the country think it's failed. By lesser majorities, they think we should offer treatment instead of incarceration.

Here are two issues that Gore can take an independent position on and show he is departing from the failures of the past. Independent voters, the constituency that supported Ross Perot in 1992 and is cynical about elected leaders and political parties, are looking for a non-politician. How could he do it? He could say, "I've been part and parcel of a failed system. I took advantage of a failed system, but I know that this system is wrong and has to be changed. I am willing to be the first presidential candidate to repudiate soft money." I would advise him to declare unilateral disarmament in the campaign finance war by refusing to use soft money.

Lanny Davis, former White House counsel

Al Gore has to define the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties, and make the case that America is better off than we were eight years ago. In 1992, we had high unemployment, runaway deficits and our economy was out of control. Now we have billion-dollar surpluses, low unemployment and unprecedented growth. Gov. Bush doesn't have an answer for how he would do anything different from the last Republican administration.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio

An election takes place in many dimensions. First, there's the mechanical level, organizing people, getting Democrats on a precinct level to get out the vote, getting union members to get their members to vote.

But there's another dimension, a spiritual dimension. Its up to Gore to reach that. He needs to touch people's hearts. He needs to inspire people. If he can do that, he can win hands down. Some think it's a Rubicon to be crossed, but I think he has it in him. After all, the bridge to the 21st century runs over that river.

Tommy Smothers, entertainer

If Al Gore came to me and asked for my advice on how to win, I wouldn't have anything to do with him. It's not just that he's a Democrat, it's the whole system. I was a Perot voter before. Now I'm for Ralph Nader. I'm enthusiastic about Nader because I've known him a long time and he does good deeds, cares about people and is very knowledgeable. He's not going to win, but it's important to vote for his ideas. He won't do very well unless there's a three-way debate. His views need to be heard. That's why the Shadow Convention is so important. I tell people make sure your vote counts, so vote for a third party, any third party.

Robert Dallek, presidential historian

I think what he has to do is use Joe Lieberman, and I think he should use Bill Clinton to defend the record of the past few years, well not so much to defend it but to underline it, underscore it and connect himself to the success of the administration. I think the campaign rally cry has to be, "Are you better off now than you were eight years ago?"

It's a three-pronged approach. One is they have to lay out the achievements of the past eight years. Second, Gore has to enunciate his vision of where he will be taking the country in the next eight years, or at least four, how he would continue the record of prosperity, how he would tackle education, the environment, the issue of drugs for the elderly on Medicare. He has to speak to the issues and how he would handle them. And I hope that's what we will be hearing from him Thursday night.

Third, they have to lay out how inadequate George W. Bush's plans are, and couple that with his failings in business. They have to look at his record in Texas on the environment, healthcare, child healthcare, education -- he's been trumpeting his achievements in education, but there's plenty that one can say about it that is critical.

Daniel H. Pink, chief Gore speechwriter from 1995-1997, is a Fast Company contributing editor and author of the forthcoming "Free Agent Nation: How America's New Independent Workers are Transforming the Way We Live."

Gore should steal the best idea of the 2000 campaign: John McCain's proposal to cut corporate welfare to oil companies, sugar barons, and agribusiness -- and use the proceeds to finance school vouchers for a few hundred thousand poor children.

This idea is brilliantly attuned to the values of the new economy voters who will decide this election. Forget Big Business vs. Big Labor -- or even public spending vs. private investment. The real divide in politics, commerce and most realms of American life today is between the big and arrogant and the nimble and responsive -- between the rigid, one-size-fits-all approach of the old economy and the experimental, tailor-made attitudes of the new economy.

By seizing some version of McCain's idea, calling it an "experiment," and awarding enough funds to allow families actually to afford private school tuition, Gore can land himself on the right side of the divide. He's already partway there with his effective jabs at Big Oil, Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, and Big Polluters. But he loses credibility by almost always siding with Big Schoolhouse.

Teachers' unions, of course, will howl if Gore reconsiders his longstanding opposition to vouchers -- even though this proposal steals not a cent from public schools. But most American schools today are profoundly flawed. And keeping poor children trapped in deplorable schools is no more noble than doing the bidding of Archer Daniels Midland.

However, this isn't just the right thing to do. It's also politically ingenious. Since African-Americans overwhelmingly support school choice, it would rally the Democratic base. Attacking corporate welfare steals an issue from Ralph Nader. And supporting a modest school choice experiment signals to centrists, swing voters, and McCainiacs that Gore is willing to break with Democratic orthodoxy and challenge the party's own special interests. It's an electoral trifecta.

This time around, don't think triangulation. Think larceny. Steal this idea.

Sean Wilentz, Dayton-Stockton professor of history at Princeton University and a contributing editor to the New Republic

A note to Al Gore: You must keep running on the issues, against the Republicans as well as against W. Remember that, while we're all good family men in this race, the public sided with Clinton and the Democrats against Starr, Hyde, DeLay and the GOP over impeachment. Look to the future, running as the new guard against the Bush old guard. But don't completely forget one of your better lines: "We say legislate; they say investigate." Once in a while, give 'em hell! (You look looser that way.) Above all, disregard everything that the D.C. in-crowd pundits and "experts" say to you -- and about you.

Salon Staff

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