A funny thing happened to Al Gore on the way to his surprisingly effective acceptance speech. He became a liberal.
The speech was as liberal as anything FDR or LBJ or Jesse Jackson or one of the Kennedys might have delivered. It was built around a commitment to fight for ordinary people, against large and powerful interests. This, of course, is precisely what made it effective.
The emotional heart of the speech, Gore's honoring of four ordinary American lives, did not just salute the struggles of workaday families, the way Ronald Reagan often did. It identified who was dishonoring their struggles - corporations. He singled out heartless HMOs who pressure a family to sacrifice a child; drug companies that force a pensioner to choose between food and medicine; corporate polluters; corporations that pay workers inadequate wages.
And he identified the solution: strong, reliable public Social Security; better Medicare; welfare reform that rewards work rather than punishing the needy; higher minimum wages; and more investment in public - not voucher - schools, so that working families don't have to send kids to crumbling classrooms.
What is the evil? Corporate power. What is the remedy? Effective government.
That's not all. Gore also went out of his way to honor the various constituencies that make up the soul of the Democratic Party. Black voters were reassured that Gore would never abandon affirmative action; women that he would fight for Roe v. Wade and the right to reproductive choice; gays that he would work to enact anti-hate-crime legislation and pass antidiscrimination legislation and conquer HIV/AIDS; trade unionists that he would press for global standards in the context of expanding trade.
These appeals, of course, were deftly couched in much broader language to depict Gore as a fighter for all Americans, especially all working families. But the speech was a remarkable odyssey given Gore's New Democrat roots.
After all, the Democratic Leadership Council, architect of New Democrat centrism, has spent fifteen years counselling a very different course. First, Democrats were supposed to stop bashing business and practicing class warfare. Second, they were supposed to distance themselves from big government. Third, they were supposed to stop pandering to liberal interest groups.
And, finally, they were supposed to be more credible on values issues once owned by conservatives, like defense, family, faith, and crime.
New Democrats claimed Bill Clinton as one of their own, but the alliance was uneasy. Clinton did tack to the center on welfare, crime, and budget balance, but he also pushed outward on gay rights; he went out of his way to appoint women, blacks and Hispanics; he stuck with the unions; he resisted a lot of the DLC's privatization advice and he particularly defended public schools and public Social Security and Medicare.
But Gore was supposed to be pure New Democrat. His closest advisers include the DLC's guiding strategists. And just to provide the exclamation point, Gore named as his running mate Joe Lieberman, the DLC president. This was the DLC's crowning moment.
Yet, in the event, Gore mutated into a liberal. The only New Democrat themes Gore struck, and minimally, had to do with values issues. For the most part, Gore pounded the theme that the real family-value issues were pocketbook ones. He did not hesitate to brand Republicans as the party of the rich. Even his salute to his parents had not just a family theme but one of social class and political struggle - his mother as a waitress and his father as a schoolteacher.
Far from abandoning the nemesis of the DLC, his party's interest groups, Gore embraced them. Far from defining big government as the problem, in the style of Clinton, Carter, Reagan and the Bushes, Gore embraced major government initiatives as the necessary remedy. The real malevolent special interest groups, Gore made clear, are corporate ones.
Commentators have obsessively analyzed whether Gore effectively distanced himself from Clinton. Did the speech credit Clinton not enough or too much, did it subtly criticize him, did it put Gore's vice presidential years behind him?
But this misses the point: Gore succeeded in establishing himself as his own man - by defining himself as a fighter for ordinary people.
In abandoning his DLC roots, Gore stumbled on the political reality that Democrats win the hearts of ordinary voters not by repairing to the bland center but by being champions of working families. And they do it by using ample government interventions to balance private power. FDR could have told him that.
Welcome back, Al.
Robert Kuttner is the editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.