Months after introducing a Santa Claus list of expensive new treats for voters, like prescription drugs and hundreds of billions of dollars in education monies, weeks after Gov. George W. Bush successfully began making his case against him as a "big gummint liberal" and with scarcely two weeks left before the merciful end to Decision 2000, Vice President Al Gore decided it was time to counter the impression that he liked government.
How best to do so? With a preposterous promise, of course.
"I'll make this clear pledge," Gore said to a small room of supporters at the Little Rock, Ark., Convention Center Tuesday morning. "As president, I will not add to the number of people doing work for the federal government -- not even by one position."
Asked later in the day on Air Force Two how serious such a remark could be, Gore called it an "absolute ironclad pledge." After all, he pointed out, as a lifelong Washingtonian and former chieftain of the Clinton administration's "reinventing government" effort, he's the man for the job. "I know where the rats in the barn are," Gore said.
That effort is evidence of his New Democrat roots, he said. His effort, Gore said, reduced "the number of federal positions by 300,000." He neglected to mention that 87 percent of the eliminated jobs came from the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
As Paul Light of the Brookings Institution pointed out in Government Executive Magazine, in a quote helpfully gleaned and e-mailed to reporters by the Bush campaign, "Where Gore clearly errs is claiming that reinventing government is somehow responsible for rolling back the size of government to the smallest level since the 1960s ... [Gore's] claim is only defensible ... if he can show that reinventing government was somehow responsible for the end of the Cold War."
In fact, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, discounting the reductions in the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments, there are actually 1,282 additional federal workers as of May 2000 compared with January 1993.
Notwithstanding these nit-picking details, Gore played a game with the audience that he called "A Tale of Two Candidates."
One candidate -- our hero -- "has worked to reduce the size of government to its lowest level in 40 years, ... has fought for fiscal discipline and economic prudence, which has helped to turn huge deficits into growing budget surpluses." The other (Boo!) "presided over a modest rise in bureaucracy and the number of government employees, ... [and] presided briefly over a budget surplus but quickly turned it into a budget shortfall.
"Some Americans would be surprised to know that the first candidate is standing before you right now," Gore said with some dramatic aplomb. "The other is my opponent, George W. Bush." In honor of his loathing of government, Gore promised that he would kick off "Reinventing Government II" as soon as he gets elected.
And even if he liked government -- which he doesn't, doesn't, doesn't -- Gore contrasted such an alliance with the foxes Bush wants to let into the chicken coop. "Governor Bush talks a lot about 'trusting the people,'" Gore said. "The question is: Which people does he trust?"
The answer: "Wealthy and powerful interests," Gore said.
Gore's speech was part of an action-packed itinerary, starting with a morning rally in downtown Little Rock, where Democrats lauded their boy as a good boy, a nice boy, really, while a vote for Bush was equated with picking as a road-trip buddy Jason from "Friday the 13th."
"The alternative is scary!" said Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark. "It's scary."
Even though legendary orator and retired Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., gave a resounding introduction, he sang a shrill and terrifying tune to reporters on his way out. "I just think it's very risky not to vote for Al Gore," Bumpers said. "I know every reservation people have about Al Gore, but they need to rise above it."
Now there's a bumper sticker for you!
Later, Gore flew to Shreveport, La., where he gave a pumped-up address at the airport after being introduced by his doting wife, Tipper Gore. She also vouched for him.
"Even though he is running for president and ... it's hard," Tipper said, "he has made every single one of our son's football games! Every one of them! Every one of them! I don't really want to share that with everybody! It's personal! But it matters that you know about this person's character! It matters that he puts his family first! He will put your family first!"
In the hot Louisiana sun, on the stifling Shreveport Regional Airport tarmac, Gore stepped up to the mike. His accent got thicker. Lapsing into some unfortunate fuzzy math, Gore talked about "the strongest economy in the 221-year history of the United States of America!" (Make that 224.)
"But here is mah message to you. I am not satisfied! You ain't seen nuthin' yet!" He said he wanted to reduce the debt and bring "major improvement to our public schools," including "smaller class sizes, new teachers and new school construction." Plus, Gore said, he would "give every middle-class family a tax reduction of $10,000 for college tuition." All while having "smaller, smarter government," he said.