No matter how hard he tried to remake himself or distance himself from President Clinton, Al Gore was always fated to be Vice President Al Gore. That meant that whether he liked it or not, Gore's chances of becoming president always hung in large part on Clinton's popularity. As Tuesday's primary here approaches, that no longer seems such a terrible thing for Gore.
So much has been made of Gore's campaign shakeups, his attacks on rival Bill Bradley and his new persona as a "fighter" that the most basic change in the nation's political terrain has almost been overlooked: Gore is doing better because Bill Clinton is doing better, especially among the Democrats who are deciding Gore's fate in the primaries.
Bradley, in turn, has been criticized for not taking advantage of the strong position he enjoyed late last fall, when politicians and reporters alike were writing off Gore's chances, and for being disastrously slow in responding to Gore's relentless assaults on his health plan and his record.
But Bradley may have been hurt even more by the shift in attitudes about Clinton. Three months ago, "Clinton fatigue" was in full flower. Many Democrats found Bradley's promise of a "fresh start" an appealing and necessary break with an administration scarred by scandal. At the time, Bradley seemed the best of all worlds: a Democrat who shared Gore's moderately liberal outlook but who could rid the party of Clinton's baggage. Bradley looks like less of a winner now because Clinton, and by extension Gore, looks less like a loser.
As they reveled in Clinton's State of the Union promises on health care, education and the minimum wage--all carefully coordinated with Gore's political interests--the vice president's aides acknowledged their new embrace of the "Clinton-Gore" legacy. As recently as a month ago, the phrase "Clinton-Gore" was a curse word never to be uttered in polite company. Bradley, on the other hand, liked talking about "Clinton-Gore."
The shift has been evident in Gore's speeches, including an address yesterday at a high-tech firm housed in a refurbished factory building here in which Gore recounted the administration's economic successes. Once, the vice president seemed desperate to separate himself from what he would call Clinton's "reprehensible" behavior. Gore now speaks again as a proud member of a team. In a Boston Globe op-ed piece yesterday touting his candidacy, Gore used the word "we" four times in the first five sentences, as in "we balanced the budget" and "we raised the minimum wage."
Not surprisingly, Gore insists that "there has been no change" in his public stance toward Clinton. "It's kind of a Rorschach test for those who are listening to it," he said in an interview. "But from my standpoint, it's the same message."
Asked earlier about the end of Clinton fatigue, Gore's press secretary, Chris Lehane, had a quick reply: "People are not tired of 22 million new jobs. The American people like the policies of the Clinton-Gore administration." He also offered what might be called Lehane's first law of politics: "Second-term presidents, as they enter their last year, historically see their approval levels grow." Welcome to the world of Clinton Nostalgia.
One historical parallel especially excites the Gore camp. At the beginning of 1988, Vice President George Bush was faring disastrously in the polls--but so, too, was President Ronald Reagan, whose approval ratings were mired in the 40s because of anger over the Iran-contra scandal. By Election Day 1988, Reagan's approval levels were back in the 60 percent range, and Bush won a comfortable victory over Michael Dukakis.
It's true, of course, that Republicans dislike Clinton as much as they always have. In Wednesday's Republican debate here, the easiest way to score a point was to link an opponent in any way possible with the president the Republican rank-and-file love to hate. In a typical exchange with George W. Bush on education policy, John McCain snapped: "George, if you're saying I'm like Al Gore, then you're spinning like Bill Clinton."
The intense desire to rid the White House of all vestiges of "Clinton-Gore" will eventually unite a Republican Party currently showing signs of ideological strain, especially on taxes and abortion. But as Clinton took his final State of the Union bow before Congress, Gore could be assured that the man who made him vice president and then dragged him down into a scandal is once again an asset. That will be true at least as long as Gore's fate is in the hands of Democratic primary voters who seem inclined to think that four more years of "Clinton-Gore" might not be so bad after all. And, maybe, longer than that.