Gore Tests Slogan With Party Centrists
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 3, 1998; Page A12
Vice President Gore, in a practice run for his soon-to-be-official presidential campaign, marketed a new slogan yesterday, laid claim to the "dynamic center" and took a swipe at a man who is not even in the race yet.
"America needs something better than compassionate conservatism," Gore said in an apparent reference to attempts to promote a shift to the middle by Republican leaders such as Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who is widely talked of as a possible Republican presidential candidate.
Gore addressed the Democratic Leadership Council, an influential centrist group that helped catapult Bill Clinton into the White House six years ago. In what seemed to be a test of themes for the 2000 campaign, the vice president offered himself as the logical heir to Clinton's "third way" mantle.
"There is a difference between using the rhetoric of the center and actually governing from the center," he said. "There is a difference between . . . talking about compassion, and actually putting your highest ideals into practice."
The solution, Gore asserted, is "practical idealism," a phrase he coined to describe an approach that "applies the values of the past to the amazing opportunities of the future."
Gore was not the only one testing out themes for 2000. Three potential rivals for the Democratic nomination spoke to the DLC, each vying to prove he is not bound by party orthodoxies.
Sen. Bob Kerrey (Neb.) challenged traditional Democratic constituencies on Social Security. Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) hinted he is willing to fight the powerful teachers' unions. And House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.) touted a major revamp of the tax code. The most notable absence was that of former senator Bill Bradley (N.J.), who has said he is seriously considering a run.
"We are trying to set the stage to make sure that New Democrat politics -- Clintonism -- outlast Clinton," DLC President Al From said.
Kerrey, jabbing his finger in the eye of many traditional Democrats, called for reforms of Social Security that would include returning the system to a pay-as-you-go basis and authorizing partial privatization of the government-run retirement program.
He also briskly rejected widespread criticism that the private savings accounts are too risky and too complicated for most workers to manage. "I'm a Democrat because I believe in the dignity, not the density, of every American," he said.
Kerrey also called for rewriting the entire approach to health care in the United States, for reforming the income tax system and offering children the education and training they will need to compete in the next century. In all cases, he urged Democrats not to cling to outdated ideology.
"If it works, we're going to support it," he said. "It's that simple."
Kerry of Massachusetts focused on what he described as a failing public education system, which he said is "imploding on itself," and urged Democrats to think unconventionally about how to fix it. Saying schools need more than just money, Kerry called for more local control, greater accountability for school performance, ending tenure for teachers and new certification requirements.
He also chastised both political parties for letting ideology block reform efforts. "Democrats are viewed to be defending the indefensible and Republicans refuse to be part of what they think is indefensible," he said.
Like the others, Gephardt urged party members to find fresh solutions to such daunting problems as the long-term solvency of Social Security and a tax code that resembles "Swiss cheese."
Buoyed by last month's surprisingly strong mid-term election results, Gephardt criticized the GOP as the party "almost mired down in its deep philosophical, ideological beliefs." Democrats, he said, are like an old bank motto he cited: "Old values, new ideas."
Gore, in the keynote address, cast the widest rhetorical net, touching on issues such as urban sprawl, abortion, community policing, the global economy and caring for elderly parents. But it was his jabs at Gov. Bush and GOP leaders that caused the most stir.
"We welcome the apparent suggestion by some Republicans that they want to move their party to the center," he said. "But we know that there is a long road between rhetoric and results."
Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes seemed tickled that her boss was Gore's chosen target.
"I wonder which part he disagrees with, the compassion or the conservatism," she said from Austin. "It's a little odd that two years before the next election the vice president would decide to take on a very popular governor even before he decides whether or not he is running" for president.
If Gore made veiled references to Bush, DLC President From took a more direct route.
"There's a certain governor of Texas who ran on our themes," he said. "I call him New Democratic Lite."
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