Oct 1 2000

Gore and the Pundits: A Tentative Embrace

While Al Gore received generally hostile coverage through the primaries–marked by frequently inaccurate coverage of his supposed inaccuracies (Washington Monthly, 4/00)–media treatment of him softened dramatically starting in August, about the time that he picked Sen. Joe Lieberman (D.-Conn.) to be his running mate.

The centrist corporate media loved the centrist, pro-corporate senator. “The best thing Al Gore did at this convention, he did the week before when he chose Joe Lieberman, because I think Joe Lieberman was the best thing about that convention,” ABC‘s Michel Martin said (This Week, 8/20/00). “No question about it,” seconded This Week‘s resident liberal George Stephanopoulos.

While Margaret Carlson (Capital Gang, 8/12/00) remarked that “people tend to turn the TV off when Al Gore comes on,” she gushed that “Joe Lieberman actually has this really quite wonderful countenance. I mean, he’s exuberant and he beams light. He’s just a great guy to have in the room.”

Despite the euphoria over Lieberman, media pundits did have some second thoughts when they heard Al Gore’s populist rhetoric at the convention, since it’s an article of media faith that the road to political success always leads to the center. Though at odds with Gore’s actual business-friendly policy proposals, his references to “working families” and “the people, not the powerful” seemed to resonate with voters, despite journalists’ claims that he was heading onto dangerous ground.

“Gore took a big risk in appealing to his party’s base instead of reaching out to independents and suburban swing voters, who may be put off by his pugnacity,” U.S. News & World Report argued (8/28/00). “His agenda could be seen by those sophisticated voters as old-style special-interest politics, offering something to every group in order to assemble a winning coalition in the fall, without a clear overarching theme like Bush’s ‘compassionate conservatism.'”

On Fox NewsBeltway Boys (8/19/00), pundit Morton Kondracke predicted that as a result of Gore’s speech, George W. Bush would be 12 points ahead in the polls at Labor Day. “Unless George W. Bush absolutely blows it and collapses in the debates this fall, I think we have witnessed Al Gore kicking away the presidential election,” Kondracke said. “He handed the entire political center of the country to George Bush.” (In fact, the Labor Day polls ranged from dead even to a six-point lead for Gore.) Kondracke’s partner, Fred Barnes, compared Gore to “Fox Mulder in The X-Files.”

Journalists were somewhat reassured by Lieberman’s post-convention winking to business executives that the populist riffs were just so many “rhetorical flourishes” (Wall Street Journal, 8/22/00). But there was worry that even Lieberman couldn’t assure that Gore wouldn’t appeal too much to his party’s progressive constituencies. The New York Times‘ Richard L. Berke asserted (8/18/00) that at the Republican convention, “Dick Cheney, the vice presidential nominee, did not have to scurry from constituent group to constituent group with words of appeasement–as Senator Joseph I. Lieberman did today, and the two days before.”

The conventional wisdom was expressed perhaps most clearly by L.A. Times/CNN pundit Ronald Brownstein, who wrote several pieces warning Gore to return to his middle-of-the-road ways before it was too late. “In almost conspiratorial tones, Gore invited voters to see their problems as the product of shadowy forces maneuvering against average Americans,” Brownstein wrote after Gore’s acceptance speech (8/18/00). “Gore risks seeming to be unaccountably angry, or even anachronistic, in combining the moderate Democratic policies of the 1990s with the immoderate Democratic language of the 1930s.”

In an August 21 analysis, Brownstein pinpointed his problem with Gore:

The big issue the convention raises isn’t Gore’s commitment to Clintonism; on the major policy questions, he almost unfailingly follows the new course the president set for the party. The question is Gore’s ability–or willingness–to make his party follow. Since 1994, liberals have swallowed their objections to Clinton’s approach because they viewed him as the last line of defense against a Republican Congress; the eruptions against Lieberman and the throwback messages from the podium last week made it clear that Gore, if he wins, would face much more assertive demands from the left. At the convention, Gore didn’t show much capacity to keep those challenges under control. If Gore, as president, couldn’t do a better job, he would be in for a long four years.

Note that Brownstein’s real worry is not that Gore is secretly a leftist, or that playing to the left will keep Gore from being elected–it’s that Gore’s rhetoric will open the door to actual left-wing policies. That’s what makes Brownstein compare the Democratic convention to the “garish nightmare” of It’s a Wonderful Life‘s Pottersville.