"I have become very impatient," Vice President Gore once said, "with my own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously."
"Every time I pause to consider whether I have gone too far out on a limb," he continued, "I look at the new facts that continue to pour in from around the world and conclude that I have not gone nearly far enough."
The words that Gore wrote eight years ago in his environmental tract "Earth in the Balance" have proved to be a prescient description of the tension he and his advisers confront as the vice president tries to craft a compelling agenda for the 2000 presidential campaign.
Gore has presented more policy proposals, in more detail, than his fellow presidential candidates in either party--and he has done it at an unusually early point in the election cycle.
Yet on issues ranging from health care to gun control and the environment, according to a dozen people who have helped Gore develop his platform, the campaign has found itself laboring under uncomfortable constraints. And there has been a continuous internal debate centered on a familiar question: How far out on the limb can Gore safely go?
Sometimes the constraints are political, as Gore has tried to balance his desire to project a "New Democrat" image against the need to woo traditional constituencies such as Big Labor and minorities. Sometimes the constraints are fiscal, as he has tried to lay out plans that sound bold but do not leave him vulnerable to the accusation that he is a big spender, or that he does not agree with the five-year budget written by the administration.
Above all, according to many of Gore's closest advisers, is the constraint of running as a sitting vice president. President Clinton still has an ambitious domestic policy agenda, much of which Gore helped develop. But, as one Gore adviser acknowledged, telling voters to "elect me and I'll do the things Clinton could not get passed" is not exactly an inspiring message.
These burdens have created a curious paradox as Gore fights off a vigorous challenge from former senator Bill Bradley for the Democratic nomination. Gore is drawn by temperament to big ideas--a slogan Bradley has effectively appropriated. Yet, this year, even many on Gore's team acknowledge he has not persuaded voters there is a central organizing theme for his own campaign. Gore's half-dozen major policy speeches, for all their detail, have not created a clear picture of what his presidency would be.
"There's a lack of confidence to the campaign," said one Democrat, who is sympathetic to Gore and has contributed policy suggestions. "What they have is a jumble of ideas rather than three or four driving themes."
This is a criticism, sources said, that Clinton has shared privately with associates as he worries about the effectiveness of Gore's bid to succeed him.
One White House official sympathetic to Gore expressed frustration that the vice president's team has not done a better marketing job of his policy ideas. "Other than health care, he hasn't broken through on anything," said this person. "I think people know Gore has a health plan; I don't think people know he has an education plan."
An irony is that the issue Gore cares most about and is most known for--the environment--has made only cameo appearances in his campaign.
It is this issue that may reflect best the different forces that have tugged at Gore's policy agenda. Sources said some Gore advisers, including congressional allies and campaign chairman Tony Coehlo, have urged caution, fearing that Gore will scare away business support and be vulnerable to criticism that he is an environmental extremist. Others, such as former pollster Mark Penn, advised that since Gore was already known for the environment he should seek "balance" and talk about other things.
In recent weeks, Gore has expressed frustration that his environmental stands were not getting enough exposure. And there are signs that he is breaking loose of his advisers' cautious counsel.
Earlier this month, according to Gore confidants, his advisers brought him several policy ideas for an environmental speech. Among those in the meeting were consultant Carter Eskew, senior policy adviser Elaine Kamarck and George Frampton, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. As Gore paced his West Wing office, he discarded the suggestions of his aides and said he wanted instead to back a ban on oil drilling off the coasts of California and Florida, including a ban on existing leases.
" 'These are all nice, but I think we ought to do oil drilling,' " one participant remembered Gore saying. " 'I've been thinking about it for a while. Why isn't it on here?' "
Despite concern that the plan was too aggressive, Gore was insistent, and two days later he unveiled the proposal on the New Hampshire coast. "He's been wanting to do the environment for a while and throw a long ball on an issue he feels deeply about," said one aide. "He finally did."
Gore for the most part proceeds gingerly whenever he moves beyond administration policy. Health care may be the most vivid example. Gore, say associates, has been worried that Bradley's proposal for insuring 95 percent of Americans will have powerful appeal with Democratic primary voters.
Pollster Penn had the same concern, sources said, and, based on his surveys, pushed a program including tax credits that he said would allow Gore to promise universal coverage by a specified date. But White House aides helping Gore, including National Economic Adviser Gene Sperling and health policy adviser Chris Jennings, warned this would be a budget-buster, robbing Gore of flexibility to propose spending on other issues.
In the end, Gore settled on a composite. His health plan promises coverage to all children by 2005, largely by expanding two federal programs, but would still leave about 33 million Americans without insurance. He similarly split the difference on gun control; Gore favors licensing all potential gun buyers, but he did not match Bradley, who wants every handgun in America to be registered.
Even as Gore is rhetorically distancing himself from Clinton, he is borrowing heavily from the White House policy apparatus. In addition to Sperling and Jennings, domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed played a critical role in crafting Gore's education proposals, including a plan for universal preschool. It was Penn, who remains Clinton's pollster, who persuaded Gore to advertise the education plan as "revolutionary change."
Like Clinton, Gore adapts ideas from the centrist Democratic Leadership Council--including a "livability" agenda designed to curb suburban sprawl and a recent speech that said the best way to tackle child poverty is by promoting responsible fatherhood.
At the center of Gore's policy team is Kamarck, a Harvard University professor with an easy laugh and exuberant style who formerly ran his reinventing government program. While Gore displays an austere, sometimes abrupt manner that many subordinates find intimidating, Kamarck is one of the few people who associates say are unafraid to challenge the vice president's views, tease him and approach him as a peer.
She is in charge of organizing the policy memos and "options papers" that Gore favors, and has assembled small teams of outside advisers. After developing a set of broad topics with Gore in 1998, Kamarck rotated groups of experts through the Old Executive Office Building for what one aide describes as Socratic-method-style sessions. On foreign policy, she recruited former ambassador Marc Ginsburg and Harvard University dean Joseph Nye; on economics, Wall Streeters David Shaw and Steve Rattner are regulars.
While Gore seeks outside input, his policy process is by no means a freewheeling affair. "He is not a pick-up-the-phone-and-brainstorm kind of guy," as one adviser put it.
In this way, Gore differs from Clinton, who enjoys expansive policy discussions that can sometimes linger on until late in the evening. Gore's most effective deliberations take place at his Naval Observatory residence in the morning, and move with dispatch. Some people say he turns snappish if he thinks people are telling him things he already knows.
The role of polling in Gore's policymaking provides perhaps the most interesting contrast to Clinton. In the Clinton White House, Penn has played a virtually unprecedented role in policy development--helping craft Clinton's agenda, not merely plans on how to market it.
Gore's attitude toward polling is more ambivalent, according to several people who have worked with him. Like Clinton, Gore hungrily absorbs the data; unlike Clinton, who revels in the insights polls give him into the public mood, Gore seems to find the process distasteful, and is more willing to challenge or outright disregard it.
Penn was ousted from Gore's campaign last month, on the grounds that he is overextended. Gore sources said Penn's replacement, Harrison Hickman, has not been given the same front-row seat in the policymaking process.
There are other important differences in the ways Clinton and Gore craft policy. Clinton, a former governor, is reluctant to impose new rules on states. Aides said Gore, who served in Congress, had no problem proposing penalties on states that do not make significant progress in enrolling children into government health plans.
The larger challenge this year for Gore, though, has been to craft a centrist agenda that is like Clinton's--but not too much like it.
"Because the Clinton-Gore administration has done a lot and has a big record, our goal is to always find something fresh," said Kamarck. She acknowledged that Gore's team is still grappling with how to turn his policies into a potent campaign message: "What Al Gore really likes doing is governing. That's good in a president, maybe not in a candidate."