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Alpha Al Gore, class warrior and defender of the status quo


For most of this campaign, Vice President Al Gore has been suffering from multiple personality disorder.

He can be an alpha male, a caring environmentalist or an international statesman, depending on the time of day. Trying to raise doubts about whether he knows who he is, wired Republicans have taken to calling his latest pronouncements "Gore 7.0."

They ask when the real Al Gore will please stand up. And the answer may be: now.

Recently, a new model candidate has been road-tested. With this version, Gore may at last have settled on something he can take to the voters in November. It may even work.

Here is Gore in Chicago: "I'm on your side and I want to fight for the people. The other side fights for the powerful. That's why the big pharmaceutical companies are supporting Governor Bush. That's why the big oil companies are supporting Governor Bush. That's why the big polluters are supporting Governor Bush."

Or this, from Connecticut: "I've stood up to the big drug companies, the big oil companies, the insurance companies and the HMOs."

Or this, from Lexington, Ky.: "On behalf of those people - not just the ones who think comfortably about their savings over scotch in the club looking out at the golf links, but also the ones ... on the factory floor - we will take the White House in November."

Yes, it's Al Gore, class warrior.

Abusing the rich is hardly unprecedented in America. Teddy Roosevelt made a career of it. But it is unusual. And, at the moment, it looks uncommonly risky.

Americans tend to aspire upwards and disdain down. At a time when 87 percent of voters say they admire people who get rich by working hard and when the new economy is producing millions of footloose voters who are pro-business and could not care less about traditional party ideology, Gore's populist rhetoric makes him sound like one of those generals busy fighting the last war.

He risks irrelevance. He also risks losing the money he needs to prosecute his campaign - which, sadly, has to come from those same villains of corporate America.

But the vice president is a peculiar sort of class warrior. In the past, populists have usually combined their attacks on the rich with proposals to upset the status quo by, for example, taking the railways into public ownership, or by increasing income taxes.

Gore is not like this. To say he supports the economic status quo does not do justice to his conservatism. Prudence is his watchword. It is, he keeps telling people, the reason why the economy has been such a success and why it cannot be entrusted to the dangerous Bush.

Though the vice president has become more bountiful with his spending plans of late (in response to the rising budget surplus), in general his economic policy is every bit as cautious as his rhetoric is extravagant.

Indeed, on the same day Gore was denouncing oil and drug companies in Chicago, the Democratic Party in Washington was issuing its draft platform, or manifesto.

It is a Clintonian document: fiscally disciplined, cautious, trade-opening, technology-promoting and business-friendly - i.e., everything populists are not. The New Democrats, centrists of the party to which Gore belongs, loved it.

The vice president's split personality is hardly unique. Most politicians are torn between populism, to please the party diehards, and moderation, to attract the wavering middle.

Bush's "compassionate conservatism," for example, attempts to reconcile supporters on the right and in the center. If the Texan's alliteration-loving publicists worked for the Democrats, Gore's new program would no doubt be dubbed "progressive pragmatism."

Yet the vice president's political schizophrenia seems to run deeper than normal.

It shows up, for example, in his environmental record, where the deep-green radicalism of his book, "Earth in the Balance," contrasts with his more pragmatic record in office. It consorts with his campaigning style and beliefs in almost every election he has fought - the first abrasive, the second cautious.

A split personality would make Gore a poor president (assuming, that is, that it affected his behavior in an office where consistency is essential). But it does not necessarily make him a poor candidate.

So far, his targets (oil and drug companies and HMOs) have been so unpopular that not even Bush has stood up to defend them. As long as Gore's class-based rhetoric does not become so strident that it puts off more people than it attracts, it has several advantages.

Gore's sallies against big business help shore up his left wing against the challenge of Ralph Nader and the Green Party.

Unions have been less than enthusiastic about the vice president because of his support for trade with China. By portraying himself as a fighter for the common man against big business, Gore might reconcile some of them to his candidacy.

Next, Gore's populism is a nice way of negating Bush's claim to be a "new kind of Republican." It does this directly, by painting him as a traditional big-business Republican who cares about fat cats rather than the public.

It also does so indirectly, by narrowing the gap Bush has tried to create between himself and the congressional Republicans, who are far less popular than he is. Gore combines his anti-business broadsides with side-thrusts at the "do-nothing-for-the-people Republican Congress."

Lastly, Gore's combination of populist rhetoric and centrist policies presents him with a way around that occupational hazard facing all vice presidents: how to distinguish yourself from your predecessor, without losing the credit for his achievements, or seeming disloyal.

The anti-corporate ranting is certainly different from Bill Clinton, who rarely indulges in such old-fashioned attacks. It also provides one or two new, popular promises (to reduce the cost of drugs and fuel). And it does so without seriously compromising Gore's claim to fiscal rectitude.

There is still a long way to go before November - and it may prove hard to prevent Gore's class-based rhetoric from overwhelming his policy restraint. But, though he is venturing down a risky road, inconsistency is already making him a better candidate.

This article first appeared in the Economist.

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