The Stiff Man Has A Spine

There seems to be an unwritten rule in newsrooms today: A mention of Al Gore is incomplete without a reference to his wooden presence. “[M]ost of the press about Gore on the stump could run under the headline ‘Stiff man still stiff,'” Melinda Henneberger observed in The New York Times. Gail Collins remarked on Gore’s eerie resemblance to Howdy Doody on the editorial page of The Good Gray One. The New Yorker hunted down the vice president’s college basketball teammates and reported his playing was … well, you fill in the blank.

But a funny thing about Gore — he’s been in the public eye for nearly a quarter of a century. After serving as congressman, senator, and vice president, Gore has left a long trail of footprints (unlike, we might add, a certain Texas governor). And while spinning new metaphors to describe Gore’s lack of charisma can make for entertaining copy, it is the vice president’s record that gives the best indication of the president he would be.

The paper trail provides much to commend him for the top job. By all accounts, Gore is a workhorse. When he decided to become involved in the then-fevered debate on nuclear weapons in the 1980s, he set aside eight hours a week for 13 months to study the issue, and emerged from the cogitation with his own strategic plan. Gore has brought similar diligence to his work as vice president. “He is a quick study, but when he has to, he really puts in the time to understand issues,” says Larry Haas, who worked on the vice president’s reinventing government initiative. “He is committed to being very, very knowledgeable on policy.”

After serving as the commander-in-chief’s shadow for the past seven years, Gore’s policy positions (and his reputation) are indelibly twinned to Clinton in the eyes of most voters. But Gore is no Clinton clone in demeanor or ideology. For one thing, Gore is more disciplined than the president. While Clinton is known to relish interminable debate, Gore favors quick action. Former staffers say Gore served as resident grown-up in Clinton’s first term, prodding the president to issue decisions. According to The Agenda, Bob Woodward’s chronicle of Clinton’s first year in office, Gore’s frustration did spill into plain view on at least one occasion. When the president mournfully asked what he could do to pass his economic program, Gore, exasperated, retorted, “You can get with the goddamn program!”

In addition to differences in their modus operandi, Gore seems more of a dyed-in-the-wool centrist than the president. While Clinton publicly agonized over signing the 1996 welfare reform bill, Gore pushed the president to make it law. The vice president was also a strong proponent for fiscal discipline before Clinton caught budget-cutting fever. In Clinton’s inaugural year, Gore looked into freezing Social Security cost of living allowances (COLAs). It was a daring move, considering social security’s status as the third rail of American politics. The administration ultimately decided against cutting entitlement spending in its inaugural year. But when the Republicans captured the House and Senate in 1994 and began clamoring for full-fledged deficit reduction, Gore was instrumental in persuading Clinton to offer a balanced budget of his own.

While Gore has more moderate political instincts than Clinton, the vice president can be a bolder politician. Clinton doesn’t choose his vacation spots without consulting pollsters. His presidential agenda seems almost exclusively dictated by what will play well with the public. The vice president, in contrast, seems committed to the issues he cares about. Gore pushed hard for intervention in Bosnia and Haiti. He stuck with the low-glamour issue of reinventing government for six long years. He fought for improvements to the 1996 telecommunications bill and pushed the president to threaten a veto when Republicans were hell-bent on complete deregulation. Thanks to the vice president, the Clinton administration is the most pro-environment in a generation. When the 1997 climate-change negotiations were on the verge of collapse, Gore flew to Kyoto over the howls of his political advisors and helped broker a compromise. To be sure, the vice president is no wide-eyed idealist. He may be able to hold forth for hours on the poisoning of the environment, but he is a clear-eyed vote counter, too. Still, look at his record and the message comes across: This stiff man has a spine.

The Democratic Hawk
In July of 1995, President Clinton was agonizing over Bosnia. The town of Srebrenica had just fallen to the Serbs, and the media was filled with bone-chilling reports of genocide and mass rape. Gore, who had argued for U.S. intervention since the early days of the administration, was adamant that the United States respond to the carnage. In a meeting with the president, he described a photograph of a young Muslim refugee who had committed suicide by hanging herself with a floral shawl. Gore’s 21-year old daughter was haunted by the photograph, said the vice president. What she couldn’t understand, he continued, was why the United States wasn’t doing more. The story made an impression on the president at a decisive moment. “We’ve got to try something,” Clinton concluded.

Gore has never shied away from tough foreign policy decisions. When he decided it was in the United States’ strategic interest to dislodge Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991, he joined just nine other Democratic senators to vote in favor of the Gulf War. In Bosnia and Haiti, Gore decided the humanitarian and pro-democratic imperatives of putting a halt to mass murder and dislodging dictators off the Florida coast were legitimate reasons to send in U.S. troops. As it turns out, Gore was right on all three counts. Can you think of another politician with a similar track record?

Those positions did not smack of political expediency. Dispatching the U.S. military to Bosnia and Haiti held the potential of returning GIs home in body bags. And when Gore voted for the Gulf War, there seemed to be little political payoff at the time. Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and leading national security authority Sen. Sam Nunn had leaned on their junior colleague to stick with the party, and there were compelling reasons for him to do so. If military action succeeded, after all, it was President George Bush who would bask in the victory’s glory. Alternatively, if the country were drawn into another Vietnam, Gore’s vote would cripple another bid for the presidency. For Democrats, taking a pro-war stance took guts.

While the vice president isn’t skittish about flexing U.S. military muscle, his foreign policy role isn’t limited to advocating intervention abroad. It was Gore who coaxed the Ukraine to surrender its nuclear weapons in 1993 and take the International Monetary Fund’s bitter economic medicine last year. And for six years, the vice president’s bilateral commission with former Russian Prime Minister Vicktor Chernomyrdin was the administration’s fundamental channel to Moscow.

The Gore-Chernomyrdin conduit officially closed down when Russian President Boris Yeltsin dumped Chernomyrdin as his number two in 1998. But when Yeltsin named Chernomyrdin Russia’s peace envoy in the Balkans this year, the vice president and his former negotiating partner played a key role in bringing the Kosovo crisis to a close. In their bilateral commission talks, Gore and Chernomyrdin had tackled issues ranging from Russian missile sales to Iran to trade disputes over frozen chicken legs. But when the two men sat at Gore’s dining room table to discuss the situation in Yugoslavia, they weren’t engaging in another round of horse trading. Gore’s mandate wasn’t to negotiate, but to convince Chernomyrdin that NATO bombing would continue until the Kosovo refugees could safely return to their homes. The message, evidently, was received. “The most fundamentally important thing the vice president did,” says a senior Gore aide, “was convince Chernomyrdin that he was in fact in the presence of the bottom line.” It was an occasion, perhaps, when the vice president’s reputation for sticking to his guns helped make the difference.

Fighting the Bureaucracy
By all accounts, Gore serves as a trusted consigliere to the president. But that role wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Gore’s first big project in the White House — reinventing government — didn’t mark him out as an indispensable player. In the early days of the Clinton presidency the big ticket items were health care and welfare reform — the sort of projects that would define an activist democratic administration. Gore asked to lead the welfare reform effort. Clinton and his advisors demurred; it seemed too high profile an issue for a vice president to handle. Ultimately, of course, the Republican congress called the shots on welfare. Gore’s consolation prize was the unsexy project of streamlining the federal bureaucracy.

The vice president is said to have been disappointed at the slight, but he threw himself into the reinventing government program. In program’s first year, the vice president devoted one to two days per week to REGO (as reinventing government became known). He met with run-of-the-mill bureaucrats in “town meetings” to get a feel for a situation on the ground and picked the brains of Fortune 500 CEOs for corporate restructuring tips that could be transferred to the federal government. Before he publicly introduced REGO’s recommendations, Gore personally sat down with each cabinet secretary to make sure they were on board. The vice president worked quickly; he received his assignment in March 1993, and by September he unveiled REGO’s findings in a White House press conference.

Gore’s efforts have produced some impressive results. The vice president has cut some 351,000 employees from the federal workforce, making it the smallest it’s been since the Kennedy administration. He’s also improved the way government purchases goods and services, updated its information technology, and trimmed unnecessary regulations. Observers give REGO credit for prodding the bureaucracy into a more customer-friendly mindset. “Some of it is basic stuff; for example, if someone wants to find out how to get their passport renewed, they can look in the front of the phone book under P for passport and find out what they have to do,” says Donald Kettl, professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “Before they would have had to guess which agency to go to. Believe it or not, it took a tremendous amount of work to get that sort of thing done.”

At first, White House staffers and pollsters were unimpressed with Gore’s REGO handiwork. After all, “improving government procurement practices” wasn’t a phrase that would prod people to pull the Democratic lever in a voting booth. But when health care reform collapsed and the Republicans claimed the House and Senate in 1994, REGO’s emphasis on smaller government became a harbinger of the centrist tone the Clinton administration would soon adopt.

This is not to say Gore’s reinvention efforts were flawless. Real reform starts with taking a fresh look at what government agencies should be doing, then asking how well they’re doing it and who they need for the job. But particularly in its nascent stages, REGO’s emphasis was on improving how government works rather than questioning what its fundamental mission should be. That’s like the tail wagging the dog. It doesn’t make sense to chip away at the federal bureaucracy until you know what final shape you want it to take. Gore’s reforms also did not address the fact that many of the problems in government agencies stem from their inability to fire incompetent or indifferent employees. REGO’s personnel reductions were achieved through voluntary buyouts; that is, workers were offered a chunk of cash to leave early, without regard to their performance. The most competent workers were in the best position to find jobs in the private sector, and they were the group most likely to jump ship. Government became smaller without getting any smarter.

Still, the very fact that Gore stuck with the reinvention project for six years is commendable. The last five administrations have tried their hand at shaking up the federal government. But no one of the vice president’s stature has led the effort or devoted the amount of time he has to it. “It’s an issue as dull as dishwater,” says Kettl. “And it’s an issue where it’s hard to have a big win. Gore could have dropped it, or delegated it to one of his deputies. But he’s stuck with it, and tried to wrestle it down. I think that’s a sign of character.”

Of course, sticking with it and wrestling it down have been Gore hallmarks since his freshmen days in the House. Gore was never the backslapping pol who achieved national prominence by climbing the rungs of the party leadership. Rather, the Tennessean law maker edged his way into the limelight by developing expertise on recondite issues like arms control and information technology. Gore’s weak ties to Democratic cliques didn’t make him a superb administration emissary to the Hill. But his policy credentials and solid relationship with the president allowed him to lay claim to a thick issues dossier in the White House. The vice president had been a player on telecommunications policy since his days as a wet-behind-the-ears congressman. With that background, it seemed natural for Clinton to anoint the VP as the White House telecom guru. And according to consumer advocates, it’s a good thing the issue found its way into Gore’s portfolio.

GoreTech
Consumer Union’s Gene Kimmelman was no fan of the 1996 Telecommunications Bill. The legislation would deregulate the telecom sector too quickly, he thought, which would translate into heavy concentration of ownership and higher prices for consumers. (His fears were well-founded, in light of the rash of telecom mergers and spiraling costs that have come on the heels of the bill’s passage.) Nevertheless, he was impressed by the administration’s tenacity in fighting some of the legislation’s more egregious provisions. And so at the signing ceremony, he approached the president and thanked him for the concessions he had wrestled from Republicans.

“Don’t thank me, thank him,” replied Clinton, as he gestured towards the vice president. “He was the one who recommended threatening the veto and fighting.”

It was good strategy to draw a line in the sand. By 1994 industry players ranging from wireless phone service providers to long-distance telephone companies were itching to enter new markets, and the Republican congress was ready to deregulate the industry willy-nilly. The GOP, for example, was proposing to virtually eliminate all regulation of cable monopoly services overnight. And the extreme provisions didn’t stop there. “The House Republicans passed a bill that would have potentially allowed a single person to own all of the radio licenses in America,” says James Love, director of Ralph Nader’s Consumer Project on Technology. “It went that far.” At Gore’s urging, Clinton threatened a veto. And the vice president went on the offensive. “These bills … represent a contract with 100 companies,” he said. “The highest bidders, not the highest principles, have set the bar.”

Gore matched the rhetoric with tough negotiation behind the scenes. He pushed through a provision allowing the Federal Communications Commission to regulate cable rates for an additional three years. He insisted that the Baby Bells be forced to open local telephone service up to competition before they could enter the long-distance market. And he fought to keep in place restrictions prohibiting media “cross-ownership” (so newspaper and broadcast licenses cannot be concentrated in one person’s hands in a single market). Gore also helped water down the Republicans’ proposal to abolish restrictions on radio ownership. Today, up to eight radio stations can fall into a corporation’s hands in a big market (a formula that has still allowed corporate America to gobble up most of the radio dial — as described in “The Death of Local Radio,” TWM April 1999). “Gore did a very, very good job,” says Andy Swartzman of the Open Media Project. “He knew the issues, he was heavily involved, and he cared. I still think the final bill sucked, but I give him credit for getting the best possible legislation he could in that environment.”

An important Gore achievement in the telecom negotiation was securing funding to wire schools and libraries to the Internet by 2000. The so-called “e-rate” program has become one of Gore’s signature issues: He introduced it in a Los Angeles speech six years ago and fought for its inclusion in the telecom act. The program provides a 20 to 90 percent discount on telecommunication services to schools and libraries, depending on community poverty levels. The vice president was probably too ambitious in his timeline: At this point only half of classrooms are wired to the Internet, and school officials and technology experts say it will be well into the next century before every kid has access to the Information Superhighway. Still, the e-rate is a commendable program. As Gore points out, the policy helps poor kids out the most; not too many impoverished families can invest in computers or modems. If they don’t have access to the Internet at school, they won’t at all.

With its technological edge and progressive tone, the e-rate would seem an initiative ripe for bipartisan support. But the program’s financing has allowed Republicans to turn the issue into a political football. As part of the bargain struck under the 1996 act, the e-rate is partially funded through fees from long distance phone companies. These long-distance carriers (which have complained loudly about the arrangement) have started listing the e-rate cost as a separate item on phone bills, and Republicans have dubbed the fee the “Gore Tax.” Obviously, no presidential candidate wants his name bestowed on a tax, but Gore seems to welcome a fight with the GOP on the issue. “It’s not a tax,” Gore said cheerfully in an interview. “But I’m glad they named it after me.”

Green Man
The vice president was supposed to speak about the health effects of global warming at the National Academy of Sciences for just 10 minutes. But Gore was 25 minutes into his presentation before he called out, “Can I have the first slide, please!” As he spoke for the next hour to the audience of scientists and environmentalists, Dan Becker of the Sierra Club shook his head in amazement. “Can you think of any other vice president in the world, or for that matter 100 non-scientists, who could give a knowledgeable and detailed a talk on that kind of a subject?” he asks as he retells the story. Gore’s staffers stood in the back of the room, no doubt ruminating over how the vice president’s schedule was shot for the day. Becker approached one of the aides and asked him what he thought of the vice president’s performance. “Maybe,” replied the staffer, “he’s trying to tell us something.” Namely, don’t try to script this guy on an issue this close to his heart.

The vice president has been following his own script on global warming for nearly quarter of a century. Gore began thinking about how carbon dioxide emissions could be heating up the atmosphere when he was still in college, and he held the first congressional hearing on the issue as a 20-something House member. Gore also made the environment a central theme of his 1988 presidential bid, with scant political payoff. Columnist George Will sneered at Gore’s “consuming interest in issues that are, in the eyes of the electorate, not even peripheral.” And after the Tennessee senator gave an address on ozone depletion in a presidential primary debate, Jesse Jackson turned to the audience and observed: “Senator Gore has just explained to us why he should be our national chemist.”

Of course, after yet another sweltering summer, Jackson’s dig doesn’t seem quite so funny today. This century is the hottest in at least 600 years, and the warmest years of the century occurred in the ’90s, according to findings published in the scientific journal Nature. The science is not conclusive on global warming, but the consensus is close to unanimous that human activity is having an effect on climate. The implications of the trend could go beyond sticky, unbearably hot temperatures. Severe and dangerous weather could damage the food supply, lead to the loss of species and land, and spur the spread of disease. As Gore observes in his book Earth in the Balance, “The massive transformation of the earth’s climate system that we call the ice ages took place after average global temperatures were only six degrees Celsius colder than today. If such a small change on the cold side caused the ice ages, what can we expect from a change of that size on the warm side?” What indeed? Maybe a national chemist for president isn’t such a bad idea after all.

Perhaps the vice president’s gutsiest move on behalf of green causes came in 1997, when he flew 22 hours to Kyoto to salvage the global climate negotiations. “That treaty was on the rocks,” says Becker. “The fact that Gore placed a personal stake in the outcome made a big difference.” The vice president personally lobbied foreign delegations and helped break the logjam. Under the resulting treaty, the United States and 38 industrial nations agreed to reduce their greenhouse emissions to 1990 levels by 2012. The agreement is hardly radical — the United States (which is the world’s biggest polluter) agreed to reduction levels that were only one-half of what the European Union was proposing. Despite the modest terms, however, the treaty has almost no chance of being passed by the Senate. That’s partially because Republicans are disgruntled that developing countries were exempt from the first round of cuts. But they have also made killing the deal a cause clbre because they do not want to hand Gore a victory going into the 2000 presidential campaign.

The vice president’s efforts on behalf of green causes aren’t limited to Kyoto. It was the vice president’s idea to include the environmentally progressive energy “BTU” tax in Clinton’s first budget bill. Gore spearheaded the fight to secure its passage, but it was ultimately killed in the Senate. The administration did, however, help pass the California Desert Protection Act, which covers more public land than any other conservation law. And, for the most part, the administration has beaten back the anti-environmental riders Republicans have attached to appropriations bills. “This administration is not perfect, far from it,” says Dan Weiss of the Sierra Club. “But it is, without a doubt, the greenest in a generation.”

Consider the Competition
Of course, you could say Gore had no choice but to pursue pro-environmental policies after publishing Earth in the Balance. The 1991 call-to-arms asserts that “[w]e must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization” and calls for eliminating the internal-combustion engine within the next 25 years. Dodging a global warming treaty after committing those thoughts to paper would have made the vice president look like a class-A hypocrite.

Earth isn’t just an environmental jeremiad. Gore wrote the book in an intensely introspective period of his life: He had lost his 1988 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and his small son was recovering from a near-fatal accident. Gore has said penning Earth was part of the healing process. The result was no campaign potboiler: It’s not the sort of book a presidential aspirant generally writes. Amid references to the Brazilian rainforest and ozone layer was a man publicly surveying his life and taking himself to task for being too cautious in his political career. “I grew up in a determinedly political family, in which I learned at an early age to be very sensitive — too sensitive, perhaps — to what others were thinking, and to notice carefully — maybe too carefully — the similarities and differences between my way of thinking and that of the society around me,” Gore wrote. Determined to become a bolder leader, he declared, “I have become very impatient with my own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously.”

That’s raising the bar pretty high for a politician, particularly one running for the presidency. And make no mistake about it, there was a degree of political calculation behind those remarks. Gore thought he lost the 1988 Democratic nomination because he had been too cautious and too compromising. In his book, he portrays himself as a politician who stared down his cold careerism and emerged as a tougher, more courageous leader.

But Gore has, in many ways, lived up to the standard he set for himself. As his record shows, the vice president can be a principled politician. He took tough stands on foreign intervention and proved a tenacious fighter on the telecom bill. Gore continued to head reinventing government when most politicians would have dumped the project years ago. He didn’t sell out his green friends when it was politically expedient to do so.

And Gore is well prepared to assume the presidency. Ask him to make a case for his candidacy and you can virtually hear the auto pilot switch go off in his head. “I want to save social security, Medicare, and revolutionize our public schools,” he says. “I want to ensure we have livable communities with a clean environment. I want to keep our prosperity going, and I know how to do it. I want to make sure no one is left behind and I think we can do that, too.” The list is, to be sure, a string of political platitudes. But you can bet the vice president has thought deeply about each point and could hold forth for hours on his potential presidential agenda.

If Gore’s lack of charisma would make him seem not-quite-presidential material, consider the leading alternative. If Gore bests former-Sen. Bill Bradley for the Democratic nomination, he will, in all probability, run against George W. Bush in the general election. Bush, who was still figuring out his career goals when Gore first ran for president, has been in public office for all of five and a half years. While Gore has inundated the public with specifics on how he would govern, George W. has shot up in the polls with his catch-all aphorism “compassionate conservatism.” It’s hard to know exactly what the man stands for or, for that matter, if he is even vaguely prepared to be president. But his references to “Kosovians” and “Grecians” and his dodging of harder policy questions isn’t encouraging. Bush may register higher than Gore on the charisma scale, but who would you want to steward the United States into the 21st century? As a Democratic senator skeptical of the vice president puts it, “Next to George W., Al Gore is Jesus Christ himself.”

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