Jan 24 2001

Populist Rhetoric Unpopular with the Pundits

Press finds Gore's 'obsolete jargon' hard to swallow

This year, the normal rhythms of post-election punditry were disrupted by all the talk of dimpled chads and canvassing boards. But echoing the pre-election refrain, one message did emerge from the muffled Monday-morning quarterbacking: Al Gore’s campaign ran too far to the left.

It’s a familiar charge, one that’s repeated every time a Democrat loses the presidential race. (See Extra!, 9/92.) Joe Klein, who writes about politics for The New Yorker, posited just before election day (11/6/00) that Gore’s poll numbers were suffering from “the populist rhetoric that has marked his campaign.” Klein did not offer an explanation of how Gore managed to turn his 16-point deficit in the pre-convention polls into a small lead after the debut of his populist rhetoric in his speech before the Democratic Convention—a lead that held up to election day in the popular vote. (See Extra! Update, 10/00.)

According to Klein, Gore presented an “angrier, more divisive image” than Bill Clinton, who “rarely associated himself so closely with big labor during a campaign.” In the end, Klein mused that Bush’s prescription-drug plan—”a long-term, market-oriented reform”—might be better than Gore’s “wildly expensive prescription-drug entitlement.”

Chris Matthews, the highly exposed pundit for MSNBC and CNBC, offered similar thoughts after the election (Hardball, 12/13/00). The former aide to liberal congressmember Tip O’Neill asserted that

one of the many reasons many people—well, I’m one of them— who believe that Al Gore didn’t roll up the score against Bush . . . was that he ran a negative populist campaign based on resentment, especially class and economic, even ethnic resentment, and that the American people just . . . wanted to tune that out.

Right-wing columnist Robert Novak wrote that “Gore’s imitation of Harry S. Truman has flopped in an America where obsolete populist jargon does not play as well as it did 52 years ago” (Chicago Sun-Times, 11/2/00). After the election, Novak failed to explain why “obsolete populist jargon” had won more popular votes than “compassionate conservatism.”

Unsurprisingly, it was most often centrist pundits who voiced unease at Gore’s straying from centrist orthodoxy. The Los Angeles Times‘ chief political reporter, Ronald Brownstein (11/7/00), wrote that Gore made Bush’s task easier by “tilting leftwards” with “strident economic populism” and “promises of new government spending.”

“Rhetorical flourishes”

Just how populist a campaign Gore actually ran is questionable. Over the objections of liberal Democrats, his allies pushed through a party platform that emphasized welfare reform, “fiscal discipline” and unregulated trade.

Within that cautious framework, his campaign was unable to make substantive proposals that might have clearly set his agenda apart from his “moderate” Republican rival’s, despite frequent promises to “fight for you.” Having ruled out bolder initiatives, Gore increasingly had to resort to reciting mind-numbing details of his prescription-drug and tax plans in order to differentiate his agenda from Bush’s.

And the Gore campaign made sure that big business did not get the wrong message from his convention speech. Joseph Lieberman quickly sought to reassure financial markets that they had nothing to fear from the ticket’s “quite moderate” proposals. Calling himself and Al Gore “pro-business,” Ueberman explained to the Wall Street Journal (8/22/00):

Political rallies tend not to be places for extremely thoughtful argument. . . . You have some rhetorical flourishes.

For many pundits, though, even those “rhetorical flourishes” were too much to bear. An editorial by U.S. News & World Report owner/editor Mort Zuckerman—a real-estate magnate and Gore supporter—complained (10/16/00) that Gore’s populist themes “sound like shopworn rhetoric from the 1930s.”

“Essentially, the Gore pitch is this,” the billionaire pundit wrote. “Somebody big—somebody other than Washington —is taking advantage of the little guy. In the Gore pantheon of villains, Big Oil, big HMOs and big insurance companies are at the top.”

Gore’s campaign was blasted in similar terms by the Washington Post editorial page. “His current rhetoric demonizing business is a blemish on [his] serious record,” the Post wrote (9/20/00). “In lashing out against big oil, big pharmaceutical firms and big health maintenance organizations, Mr. Gore is playing the demagogue, and he himself must know it.”

A later editorial (10/25/00) borrowed from a theme prevalent in right-wing media circles, asking in its headline, “Where’s the Old Joe Lieberman?” The Post editorialists lamented that since joining the presidential ticket, the right-wing Democrat was backsliding leftwards in an effort to please the party’s base. “Sen. Lieberman’s earliest champions have had to swallow deeply as they watched him waffle on tort reform, affirmative action, school vouchers, Hollywood and Social Security privatization—issues on which he had shown a refreshing willingness to stand up for what he believes.”

The “dean of political reporters,” David Broder, summed up the conventional wisdom in a column (Washington Post, 11/5/00) that accused the Gore campaign of having “muddled its central message of economic prosperity with a shrill populist attack on corporate greed…. It allowed a man with a genuine history as a New Democrat to appear, at times, an old-fashioned liberal.”