The Washington Times

Al Gore’s selection of Joe Lieberman as his running mate promised a Democratic campaign for the White House pitched squarely at the center of public opinion. This was the triumph of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council in presidential politics. Although Mr. Lieberman’s personal and family story is compelling, the initial rush of attention to his Jewishness probably detracted attention from the fact that this is the most right-leaning ticket Democrats have ever put together.

The fact was not lost on the party’s liberal base. Mr. Lieberman had to spend much of his convention week putting out the ideological brush fires his positions sparked among key Democratic constituencies. This is not, ideally, what you want your vice presidential nominee doing. The top of the ticket is supposed to have satisfied the base before you get to the vice presidential selection and the convention. Mr. Gore didn’t have that work done this year. Insofar as constituent groups seemed still to be taking their lists of demands to Mr. Gore, the candidate does not seem to have made himself a figure to fear within the party. So rather than advancing Mr. Gore’s claim on the center, Mr. Lieberman first made the rounds backtracking in some of the areas in which he has been to the right of the Gore campaign.

Republicans enjoyed watching this. But they should be aware that it’s a sideshow, not the main event, and that in any case, it is probably now a finished project. Democratic interest groups have to be mollified, yes; attention and obeisance must be paid. And their nominal leaders’ blessings having been granted, the question of how the rank-and-file of these Democratic constituencies views the candidates is still open. It may even be the most important question of the election. But the backing and filling is done, and the issue now is the message Mr. Gore and Mr. Lieberman will take to voters.

Mr. Gore’s speech attempted to make a populist crusade of his centrist policy proposals. That may seem an odd mix, not only because cautious incrementalism (no risky schemes) does not exactly lend itself to crusading but because both parties have been reaching for the center. In substantive terms, they have perhaps never been closer. George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” is a conscious attempt to defang the conservative message, to put conservative policy proposals forward as practical solutions to problems people face, rather than as the right thing to do in principle, and damn the consequences. Mr. Bush has spent the better part of a year and a half trying to define himself in these terms for the American people, and polls seem to indicate he is having some success. People like him; they seem to like him more than they like Mr. Gore. Is Mr. Bush really a target of opportunity for Mr. Gore’s populist tub-thumping?

Republicans reach the easy conclusion here at their peril. A Gore campaign that is competently run – itself an uncertain proposition, but Mr. Gore has been doing better – will be working day and night to try to persuade people that Mr. Bush is not what he seems to be; that Republican policy prescriptions are, after all, something to be feared; that total Republican control over government is likewise scary; and that Mr. Gore’s own policy proposals (he will gladly tell you what each and every one of them is) address the concerns people have without the risk.

The most critical moment for this is October. Historically, October is a Republican month. The GOP lags throughout the year, then in a concentrated burst gets its message out and significantly outperforms its early fall polling. But there is no reason whatsoever to think this is an iron law of elections. In fact, the 1998 closing favored the Democrats.

What’s the battlefield this year? A big one will surely be the budget negotiations between the White House (that’s the Clinton-Gore White House now) and the Republican Congress. There is no reason to expect anything other than an all-out assault on the Republican congressional majority as out of touch with people’s concerns and trapped in its “extremism.” The idea will be to make Mr. Bush guilty by association or to tie him into knots trying to dissociate himself from Congress.

Republicans are hoping they can spend their way out of the problem, easing the confrontation without arousing the anger of their base; they are also hoping that there is a paradox here for Mr. Gore: that a confrontation will bring Mr. Clinton to the fore at Mr. Gore’s expense. But it seems likely that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore can demand more than Republicans can ever provide; and there is no reason in principle why Mr. Gore can’t be the one to lead the Democratic response.

The target of Mr. Gore’s populist ire isn’t really Big Oil, greedy drug manufacturers or rich special interest groups. They are proxies. The target is Republicans.