The Washington Times
In the past 10 days, Al Gore’s presidential campaign has finally managed to get out of engine-revving neutral and into a forward gear. The surprising early display of vulnerability on the vice president’s part has given way to a new self-confidence. In policy terms, Mr. Gore has got himself back on the Third Way track.
The dynamics of the presidential contest are such that Mr. Gore currently finds himself with two rivals, Bill Bradley and George W. Bush. That’s exactly the position a Third Way politician finds most congenial, because it provides a flesh-and-blood illustration of the theoretical principles of the New Democrat, Third Way approach. Mr. Bush is too far to the right for Mr. Gore; and Mr. Bradley is too far to the left. Mr. Gore, in this environment, claims the center.
The vice president has hitherto seemed somewhat confused about how to position himself. His first impulse, was to ignore the Bradley challenge, to try to stay aloof. But Mr. Bradley began making too much headway. All of a sudden, Mr. Gore had a serious primary challenge.
He then tacked left, in an effort to appeal to the party’s base, which truly is the left pole against which Third Way politicians align themselves. Never mind the New Democrats; these are the old Democrats. Or rather, in the view of columnists E.J. Dionne Jr. and Michael Kelly, here was new space for the flourishing of the progressive wing of the party, made possible perhaps by the accommodations President Clinton arrived at with market economics and more conservative social policies on welfare and other matters.
But for Mr. Gore, this also risked turning the primary campaign into a bidding war between himself and Mr. Bradley for the approbation of the party’s left wing. That in turn raises another problem: Mr. Gore risked severing the connection Mr. Clinton established with the political center. Put another way, Mr. Clinton twice won the party’s nomination and the presidency by running as a New Democrat. The assumption on the part of Mr. Gore’s supporters – that the vice president’s New Democrat bona fides were sufficient to allow him to run to the left without losing the center – was dangerous.
These approaches, particularly in sequence, produced a campaign that seemed to lack a genuine core. Ignoring Bill Bradley while preparing to take on Mr. Bush in the general election didn’t work for Mr. Gore. Neither did turning his focus leftward to take on Mr. Bradley, leaving Mr. Bush aside for the time being. In the past 10 days, Mr. Gore has found a much better formula: taking on both Mr. Bush and Mr. Bradley simultaneously.
Mr. Gore’s new emphasis came on the eve of Mr. Bush’s announcement of his tax-cutting plans. Naturally, Mr. Gore was going to oppose Mr. Bush’s scheme. It was an entirely appropriate time to fire a broadside at Austin. But Mr. Gore did more than that: He took a shot at both Mr. Bush and Mr. Bradley. In the same breath, he denounced Mr. Bush’s tax cut and Mr. Bradley’s plans for an expensive overhaul of the health care system as programs that would put our prosperity at risk.
More recently, Mr. Gore has denounced Mr. Bradley for refusing to rule out a tax increase for his health care plans. (Quite why Mr. Bradley gave him this opening, if he wants to be taken seriously as a candidate, is a mystery. This statement is all any GOP candidate would need to beat Mr. Bradley in a general election.) But again, the context of Mr. Gore’s attack includes his simultaneous opposition to tax cuts on the scale Mr. Bush proposes. Mr. Gore presents himself as a targeted tax cutter in a time of beneficial government budget surpluses. It is extreme, in his view, to propose either a tax cut that would jeopardize the surplus or a tax hike when Americans are already paying enough to create that surplus.
Mr. Bush, for his part, is likewise trying to position himself in the center. Speaking of his tax plan during the GOP debate in New Hampshire last week, his metaphor was Goldilocks: Some, Mr. Bush enthused, say it’s too big, some say it’s too small, and that makes him think it’s just right. And with his compassionate conservatism, Mr. Bush has plainly been trying to establish himself as independent of his party’s right wing.
Nor, if things go according to his own plan, will Mr. Gore have Mr. Bradley to kick around forever. At some point in the next couple of months, Mr. Gore figures on locking up the nomination, at which point Mr. Bradley becomes irrelevant as a foil.
The question is how Mr. Gore uses the time between now and then. At last, he seems to understand that he can’t risk ceding the center to Mr. Bush. His best chance both to defeat Mr. Bradley and to prepare the groundwork for taking on Mr. Bush is by presenting himself as the voice of reason between the two of them.