Al Gore's Problem
The Vice President is running on a platform of economic populism during good times


National Journal, November 1, 2000


If  the final debate on Oct. 17 did nothing else, it helped clarify the choice facing voters. One candidate was more likable. The other was more knowledgeable. So what do voters want -- a know-it-all or a nice guy? Al Gore was the knowledgeable one. Just bursting to show how much he knew. Debate viewers, many predisposed to support George W. Bush because of his debate performances, grudgingly acknowledged that Gore did a better job in this one.

But does winning the debate mean winning the election? Back in 1960, people who listened to the first Kennedy-Nixon debate on the radio thought Richard Nixon won. He sounded more knowledgeable and experienced. But people who watched the debate on television were more impressed by John F. Kennedy. Kennedy's personal qualities -- handsome, youthful, vigorous -- gave him the edge. In 1960, peace and prosperity prevailed. No big issues were roiling the electorate. It didn't matter much which candidate was more capable because there was no urgent problem that needed fixing. Voters went with the guy they liked more. Nixon was no more likable in 1968. But he won that year because the country was in crisis. So what if he wasn't such a nice guy? Voters wanted someone who knew what he was doing.

Texas Gov. Bush was the likable one in the 2000 debates. Not always articulate, but friendly and sincere. When asked why he refused to sign a hate crimes law in Texas, Bush said: "You know, it's hard to make people love one another. I wish I knew the law because I would darn sure sign it." Viewers called Bush the more likable candidate by a 2-1 ratio. Don't nice guys finish last? Ronald Reagan didn't finish last, and he was always considered charming and amiable. But Reagan didn't get elected because of his charm. The 1980 election was close for a long time because voters desperately wanted someone who could fix things, and they were not sure Reagan was capable. He didn't cross that threshold until the debates.

Vice President Gore tried to be Reagan in the Oct. 17 debate. "Here we go again," Gore said in response to Bush's criticism. Is Gore Reagan? No. Bush played Reagan -- the likable candidate whose knowledgeability is in question. Gore played Nixon -- the knowledgeable candidate who's hard to like. So who wins? 2000 looks like 1960 -- peace, prosperity, no crisis. Good news for Bush. If there's not a great deal at stake, people may go with the more likable candidate. But Bush has to pass the same test Kennedy had to pass in 1960, and Reagan had to pass in 1980 -- convincing voters that he's knowledgeable enough to do the job.

The big puzzle in this election is, why isn't the economy paying off for Gore? The Clinton-Gore Administration has presided over the longest economic expansion in history. Nevertheless, when last week's Time poll asked voters which candidate would do a better job of maintaining prosperity, the result was virtually a tie -- Gore 47 percent, Bush 45 percent.

Gore has been trying to change that perception. Good times are his trump card. "You know, we've heard a lot from the governor about not much being done in the last eight years," Gore said in the Oct. 17 debate, "but I think the record shows otherwise. We have gone from the biggest deficits eight years ago to the biggest surpluses in history. Our economy is undeniably stronger. Homeownership is higher. We've created 22 million new jobs. The lowest African-American unemployment rate ever. The lowest Hispanic unemployment rate ever. Crime is down."

Does George W. Bush care to quarrel with that? Yes. His argument? Government didn't make it happen. "Some people in Washington think they invented prosperity," he scoffed the day after the debate. "But it happened because the ordinary people of the world followed through."

Gore isn't asking voters to reward him for the past eight years. That may be his first mistake. Instead, he says he wants to extend the prosperity to those who haven't benefited from it. Bush's response? Gore wants government to pick winners. Bush charged in Wisconsin last week: "My opponent says he would make sure 'the right people' get tax relief. But the role of the President is to realize that everyone is 'the right person' in America."

Gore is warning voters that Bush's huge tax cut could wreck the economy. Bush's response: "If this were a spending contest, I would come in second. I'm not going to grow the size of the federal government like he is." It's Gore's record amount of new federal spending that would wreck the economy. That's Gore's second mistake. He has fallen into the trap of running on a platform of economic populism during good times. Fairness is a powerful theme in bad times, such as in 1992. If middle-class people feel threatened, they are receptive to the argument that there's something wrong with the system. But when times are good, like now, the system is working for middle-class Americans. If some people aren't making it, it must be their own fault.

Gore is trying to make the election a referendum on the economy. Bush is defining the issue differently. It's not "the economy, stupid." It's government, stupid. But don't people always vote on the economy? In bad times, yes. In good times, not necessarily. American voters practice tough love. They always punish. But they don't always reward.