Gore Stings GOP on Campaign Stump
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 2, 1998; Page A1
NEW YORK, Nov. 1—Vice President Gore first tried out a tepid version of his signature 1998 campaign riff a month ago, and has been tweaking it ever since. By the time he showed up this afternoon in the Bronx, he was belting out the latest version of his rap on Republicans in a throaty roar.
"We say legislate, they say investigate," he bellowed to the outdoor rally. "We say educate, they say interrogate. We say illuminate, they say instigate. We say unify, they say vilify. We make the tough decisions, they take depositions. We find real solutions, they launch prosecutions. We know our future's nearing, they want to hold more hearings."
By the end, even Jesse L. Jackson, an expert on partisan chants, was clapping to the vice president's raucous rhythm. Then Gore repeated the anti-GOP chorus in Spanish.
Rowdy campaign rhetoric is not unusual on the brink of Election Day. But the vice president's sprint from New York to Wisconsin to California today highlighted a role he has put on increasingly bold display all year: Gore the Partisan Warrior.
Representing a president who often extols the virtues of bipartisanship and compromise, the vice president this season has taken the battle to the GOP in strikingly harsh language. Gore's combat duty, Democratic strategists say, is driven in part by calculation: Rallying the party base is a traditional assignment for vice presidents, all the more so for one defending his boss from scandal while preparing for his own nomination fight in 2000.
But Gore's stump style also reflects the personality of the politician. The vice president, according to many people who have worked closely with him, approaches politics with a streak of intellectual and moral righteousness that leads him to frame issues -- both in public and in internal White House deliberations -- in starker terms than the accommodationist president he serves. While Clinton looks instinctively for middle ground, Gore's sense of certitude has led him to strike more unyielding stands on issues from the budget to the environment and tobacco.
This forces-of-light world view, which critics say can hurtle into sanctimony, has found a voice on this year's campaign trail. In the world according to Gore, Democrats are up against an opposition whose economic ideas are "reckless" and "nutty." GOP health care policies would let insurers deny emergency room coverage even for a patient suffering cardiac arrest, proving that "for Republicans the absence of a heart may not seem like an emergency." Even more pointedly, he said the congressional majority's stance against anti-smoking legislation was a vote "not to save 1 million American lives."
He lambastes GOP leaders in Washington as benighted ideologues who are "in such disarray, the right hand does not know what the far right hand is doing." He mocks their heartland followers as the kind of people "who call C-SPAN at 3 in the morning, not knowing it's a taped replay."
This combination of invective and humor challenges the popular image of Gore as a colorless campaigner. And it has proven particularly useful in the autumn of a midterm election year to Clinton, who amid the Monica S. Lewinsky controversy has mostly restricted his political activity to fund-raisers and issue events before invitation-only audiences. (White House aides say this would be the most effective use of Clinton's time, even absent scandal.) In any event, a president who is seeking "atonement" for self-confessed sins is in a weaker position to be condemning his opponents.
But even if the circumstances were different, Gore is making arguments with cutting words that would rarely spring from Clinton's mouth. "The reality is that even when the president is at his most red-meat partisan, he's not all that partisan," said one Clinton adviser. "The vice president believes he's right and is aggressive" about saying so.
"He's got a tough edge," another veteran Clinton hand said of Gore, "and there's an us-versus-them quality to his rhetoric."
That edge was certainly there at a get-out-the-vote rally of largely Hispanic voters in Los Angeles late last month. Gore called Republicans "forces of cynicism and division and fear" and said presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush "nearly ran this country into the ground." And the edge was there in the Bronx today. He said Republicans don't want to change census methods to do a better job counting minorities because "they know their positions are hostile to African Americans and Hispanic Americans."
These kind of partisan war whoops follow in the tradition of vice presidents at least as far back as Richard M. Nixon, who delivered the rhetorical hits in the 1950s while Dwight D. Eisenhower aimed to stay above the fray, said Joel K. Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University and author of "The Modern American Vice Presidency."
Goldstein said Gore faces a quandary: While he gains in the short term by winning partisan points in advance of the 2000 primaries, if he overdoes the "hit man" rhetoric, he will seem less statesmanlike and presidential. For now, Goldstein says, "the benefits far outweigh the hazards" in the role Gore has fashioned, especially since he has mostly avoided personal attacks of the sort that Nixon or Spiro T. Agnew used when they were vice presidents.
Although the intensity of Gore's barrage surprises some audiences, there is ample precedent for it in his career. Before Republican Bush ever attacked Democrat Michael S. Dukakis in the 1988 campaign, it was Gore who first exploited the issue of murderer Willie Horton's prison furlough against Dukakis in the primaries.
Rep. John R. Kasich (R-Ohio), who said he does "not dislike Al Gore," said he is not surprised by the vice president's campaign-trail style. Kasich said Gore showed his colors in the 1995 budget battles. "The president is an expert at morphing" his image with tactical policy shifts, Kasich said. "Al Gore is a big-government liberal who believes these things to his core."
Gore became a despised figure to many Republicans in the budget battles. In private negotiations, according to participants on both sides, Clinton would often take a more neutral stance, as though leading a seminar. But Gore would launch into what Republicans considered condescending lectures on the evils of GOP proposals that sounded just like he was giving a public speech. "It was irritating and a waste of time," recalled Tony Blankley, former spokesman for House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
Gore, for his part, displays little affection for Gingrich, and in recent weeks has roasted the speaker and his problems holding the GOP House caucus together. Just last Friday, Gore professed to be "shocked" to learn that Gingrich played a role in orchestrating GOP ads assailing Clinton's lies about Lewinsky.
Rahm Emanuel, who just left his job as a White House senior aide, said Clinton and Gore have deliberately cultivated a "one-two punch" strategy that "is reflective of their different voices." Last June, for example, while Clinton called for "progress over partisanship" on the budget, Gore went before a Democratic policy group to lash Republicans for proposing "risky partisan schemes."
One Democratic leadership aide noted that it is not surprising that Gore has a more partisan style than Clinton_since Gore began his career in the ideologically divisive environment of Congress, while Clinton started as a governor in a conservative state. "It's smart of him" to be partisan in 1998, this official said, "recognizing that the audiences he needs to appeal to in 2000 are very partisan and want to hear that." But Blankley said Clinton has perfected the art of "being partisan without seeming to be partisan." Gore, by contrast, he said, seems to have two speeds: a stiff, cerebral mode and a partisan mode in which "he sounds like a 1930s union organizer."
Kasich was more charitable. Gore's fervency of belief, he said, gives him all the animation he needs: "Republicans who think that Al Gore is a stiff are wrong."
Gore certainly did not look stiff today. He was bouncing in time to salsa music as he shook hands after speaking in the Bronx. Later he led a football halftime rally at a packed union hall in Kenosha, Wis., where laborers were watching the Green Bay Packers on television.
Political consultant Dick Morris, who worked with Gore closely as Clinton's strategist for the 1996 campaign, said he considers the vice president an ideological moderate, who was an ally as Morris pushed Clinton toward the center on welfare and budget issues. But Morris said there are some issues, such as the environment, that Gore approaches with an "almost religious intensity, in much the same way the religious right regards abortion. When he feels the opposition is offending those principles, he does feel it in a way a regular politician would not."
In his 1992 book "Earth in the Balance," for instance, Gore proposed trying to eliminate internal combustion engines by 2016 and said protecting the environment should be "the new central organizing principle" for civilization.
Gore's intellectual bent sometimes makes for less than rousing partisan rhetoric. Appearing in Missouri a few weeks ago, he railed that some Republicans want to go back to the gold standard in monetary policy. "I know that sounds unbelievable," he said, "but it is a fact."
He got a better reception when he dusted off a favorite get-out-the-vote slogan tonight in the Kenosha union hall: "Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and organize!"
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