With Al Gore stalled in the polls, his New Democrat allies have begun publicly grousing about his campaign, as is their wont. They urge Gore to appeal to swing middle- and upper-income suburban voters by grabbing the banner of reform of Social Security and Medicare. And they recommend he show his independence from the party's base with a dash of race-bait, push-off politics. "He needs," argues Sen. John Breaux, "a Sister Souljah moment," referring to Clinton's calculated 1992 insult of Jesse Jackson.
With friends like these, Gore can stop worrying about his penchant for shooting himself in the foot, for their advice will cut him off at the knees. The New Dems get it wrong. They are wrong about the swing voters Gore should be worried about, wrong about the source of his problem and wrong about the remedy.
The swing voters in this election aren't upscale soccer moms with carphones in their SUVS. As Joel Rogers and Ruy Teixeira show in the their brilliant new book, "America's Forgotten Majority," the true swing voters--particularly in the Midwestern states where the election will be decided--are nonunion, noncollege educated, middle- and low-income whites--waitress moms, not soccer moms. These are the voters who abandoned the Reagan coalition in 1992 to help elect Bill Clinton. They turned off Democrats in 1994 to usher in the Gingrich Congress. And their partial return in 1996 and 1998 helped Democrats make up some lost ground.
In the era of dot-com prosperity, members of this forgotten majority still live paycheck to paycheck. They've benefited as jobs have become more plentiful and wages finally have started to rise. But they still have significant concerns about the future--about job security in a global economy, about the availability and cost of health care, about educating their kids and about whether they can afford to retire.
Gore's problem is that he doesn't have much to say to them. His platform mirrors the president's agenda, featuring an economic policy that wins toasts at the Yacht Club. His fiscal promise to pay down the debt by 2013 exceeds conservative Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's wildest dreams. His trade policy--favoring the Clinton "free trade" bills with China, Africa and the Caribbean--echoes the Business Roundtable. To reassure the financial community, he claims Travelers Citibank heavyweight, former Treasury secretary Robert Rubin, as his mentor.
On social issues, Gore embraces mainstream liberal positions--pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-environmental protection, as well as uneasy support for affirmative action and a nod to gay rights. Choice, guns and the environment are designed to attract the suburban women whom the New Dems paint as the potential swing voters. Like the president, Gore avoids pure laissez-faire liberalism by jettisoning civil liberties. He's for the death penalty, is proud about welfare repeal.
But this does little to insulate the vice president from the liabilities of his conservative economic stance. Gore essentially is saying that at a time of great prosperity, government can't do much for poor and working people. It won't stop companies from taking good jobs overseas. It won't do anything significant on schools or health care. Gore's budget projections--tracking President Clinton's--foresee no increase in discretionary spending. This fall, many forgotten majority swing voters are likely to stay home. And some may choose to vote on guns, God and gays, against Gore's liberalism.
In 1996 Clinton benefited from the cheap grace offered by contrast to the Gingrich Congress. He defended "M2E2"--Medicare, Medicaid, Education and the Environment--against Republican assaults. His bite-sized New Democrat reform gestures contrasted nicely with Bob Dole's pledge to shut the Department of Education.
But symbolic reforms are easy to imitate. George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism is intent on matching Gore gesture for gesture, from drugs to long-term care.
The New Democrat response--play push-off politics while adopting the "second generation of New Democrat ideas"--privatization of Social Security and turning Medicare into a voucher program--is perverse. Gore will have a hard enough time getting African Americans, the most loyal Democratic voters, to go to the polls. He's already pushed off unions with his support of the China trade bill.
Gore's best hope to capture the forgotten majority is that George W. has copied too much of the New Democrat playbook. Bush's call for partial privatization of Social Security by definition cuts guaranteed benefits and increases individual risk. Turning Medicare into a voucher program also pushes more risk onto the retired. Gore's populist edge will come from pitting the defense of these two programs plus help on prescription drugs against Bush's "risky" tax cut and privatization plans.
If he survives, that will be the final irony. Gore, one of the founders of the New Democrats, will depend on defense of Social Security and Medicare, the signature programs of the New Deal and the Great Society.
The writer is co-director of the Campaign for America's Future.