CLEVELAND - Al Gore unveiled a book-length campaign manifesto yesterday that sets forth ambitious goals for the nation and pledges fiscal prudence and aggressive government intervention to achieve them.
The goals are bold and the aims straightforward, Gore said: "to help the middle-class families who have always been America's purpose and pride."
Those goals include raising college attendance to 75 percent of high school seniors and college completion rates to 50 percent, reducing poverty to the lowest level ever, creating 10 million high-technology jobs, ensuring that seven in 10 families own their homes and eliminating the federal debt by 2012.
The means to reach many of those objectives are untested, but the vice president has carefully calibrated the goals and policy prescriptions in his 191-page book, "Prosperity for America's Families," to appeal to the anxieties of swing voters, especially women, which linger even in good economic times, while claiming the mantle of fiscal responsibility in the race for the White House.
In releasing the detailed economic plan here yesterday, Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, was taking a page from President Clinton's 1992 campaign, when his "Putting People First" document laid out what the Arkansas governor intended to accomplish in the White House.
The Gore book is largely a compendium of previous Gore proposals, with two exceptions: his 10 economic goals and a proposal to set aside $300 billion in projected budget surpluses as a "rainy day" fund in case of an unexpected economic downturn or other exigency.
Virtually all of that $300 billion was "found" in the Gore budget by shifting his budget projections from those of the White House budget office to the more optimistic estimates of the Congressional Budget Office.
The money would not be put into a fund but would be used to pay down the $3.4 trillion federal debt. That would help lower commercial interest rates by a percentage point, Gore aides said, which would reduce annual interest payments by $850 on a typical $100,000 home mortgage and cut $250 billion from total mortgage costs over a decade.
In many ways, Gore's goals are far more challenging than candidate Clinton's. Raising a nation's fortunes as it emerges from recession might be difficult, but it is not unprecedented. Sustaining a boom that has reached record heights means venturing into uncharted territory.
One of Gore's 10 economic goals, to raise family incomes by one-third over the next decade, would require a feat his advisers say has never been accomplished: keeping median family incomes rising by 2.9 percent annually over a decade. From 1997 to 1998, the average family income grew by 3.3 percent, from $45,262 to $46,737, but even Gore aides say the boom of the late 1990s will be hard to sustain.
"It's an ambitious goal," a senior Gore policy adviser said.
Gore also pledged to raise college attendance rates from the current two-thirds of high school seniors to three-quarters, and to raise college completion rates from 36 percent to 50 percent.
Meeting the goals could prove politically less important than setting them. Gore proclaimed those goals yesterday in an economic speech at Cleveland State University during an event that was part campaign rally, part tutorial.
He jabbed at Texas Gov. George W. Bush's nine-year, $1.3 trillion tax-cut proposal, made a veiled, mocking reference to President George Bush's "no new taxes" pledge of 1988, and mixed the centrist message of economic prudence with the populist appeal of helping the poor and working class.
"No blank checks, no deficit spending, tax cuts for the middle class instead of a tax giveaway for those who need it least," Gore pledged. "It's time to move on to a new prosperity for a new America. This is the place. This is the time, the beginning of a new century."
Gore's assertion that he can be the candidate of fiscal prudence and of new social spending has frustrated his political opponents. Rep. John Kasich, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, bristled yesterday that Gore had tried "to lecture Republicans on fiscal responsibility" as he laid out what Kasich estimated to be $800 billion in new federal spending.
"He thinks he can buy people's votes with their own money," Kasich said. "People are not silly. They don't believe there's a chicken in every pot."
Before Gore spoke, Republicans noted a Senate Budget Committee analysis of the vice president's campaign promises that concluded the spending and tax cut proposals had exceeded the projected non-Social Security budget surplus of $2.2 trillion by as much as $906 billion.
That would not put the government back into deficit, but it would mean that Gore would have to dip into the surplus of Social Security and Medicare taxes that both parties have put off limits.
"He spends the entire surplus on bigger government," Bush, the Republican presidential candidate, told a crowd of a few hundred gathered at the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre airport in Pennsylvania. "He won't admit it."
Bush made it clear yesterday that he would not cede the issue of fiscal responsibility easily. He highlighted an advertisement his campaign took out in USA Today that featured the signatures of six Nobel laureate economists who backed his tax plan.
"My plan has been endorsed by Nobel prize winners," Bush said. "His plan has been endorsed by Bill Clinton."
Gore advisers dismissed the Senate Budget Committee analysis as "unbelievably distorted." They noted that the Budget Committee estimated the cost of Gore's proposal to make some college tuition costs tax-deductible at $120 billion, but that when Clinton introduced the same plan, Congress' Joint Committee on Taxation put the cost at $30 billion.
The cost of the most expansive Gore proposal, to match middle-class private savings with government grants, was estimated at $750 billion by the GOP-controlled Senate budget panel and at $200 billion by the Gore campaign.
In many respects, the fight over the numbers could be beside the point, said Andrew Kohut, a nonpartisan pollster and director of the Pew Center on the People and the Press. With his "rainy day" fund, Kohut said, Gore is playing to moderate voters who remain skeptical about the nation's economic fortunes, and with his spending plans he is shoring up his party's liberal base.
"People will judge all this not on the merits of the numbers but on how they're sizing up these candidates," said Kohut. "And at this point, they're sizing up Al Gore more positively."
Gore was every bit the Democratic partisan yesterday. Mocking former President George Bush's "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge, the vice president said, "I don't want you to read the tea leaves, or read between the lines of a press release or a position paper. ... Just read my plan."
And he chided George W. Bush, saying, "My plan wasn't built on the cross-your-fingers economics that says we can give more to the people who already have the most and then just hope the benefits trickle down to the middle class."
Gore's economic goals
Eliminate the federal debt by 2012, with most of it paid off by 2010.
Place Social Security and Medicare projected surpluses in a "lockbox" to prevent their use for anything besides shoring up the two programs.
Increase real family income by a third over the next decade, from this year's average of $47,000.
Boost homeownership to 70 percent, largely by paying off the federal debt and thus keeping interest rates low.
Reduce the poverty rate to below 10 percent for the first time, largely by increasing the minimum wage, bolstering welfare-to-work efforts and increasing Social Security benefits for elderly women.
Double the number of people with accumulated savings of more than $50,000.
Increase college attendance and graduation rates. His key proposal is to make up to $10,000 in college tuition tax-deductible.
Create 10 million high-technology jobs.
Halve the pay gap between men and women, largely by toughening enforcement of discrimination laws. Women make 73 cents for every $1 men earn.
Cut the tax burden on average families, earning $47,000, to the lowest level in 50 years within the first two years in office.