Will Gore emerge from hibernation as lion or lamb?

September 03, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Later this month, former Vice President Al Gore is scheduled to make his first full-blown partisan political speech since narrowly being denied the presidency last year. The forum is the annual Iowa Democratic Jefferson-Jackson dinner, traditionally a showcase for presidential aspirants.

At Mr. Gore's last appearance at the event in the fall of 1999, he was riding high as the Democratic frontrunner, and he used the occasion to lambaste his only notable challenger for the party's nomination, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

With Mr. Bradley in the audience, he excoriated him for having quit the Senate earlier and declaring American politics "broken." As for himself, Mr. Gore repeatedly told the crowd, he decided to "stay and fight" in the Senate for the party's principles and goals. He challenged Mr. Bradley directly from the podium to agree to debate him weekly anywhere in Iowa.

Mr. Bradley, as usual marching to his own drummer, just smiled and said nothing, leaving the impression with many that he was ducking. That was fine with Mr. Gore, who continued to sledge-hammer his opponent without restraint.

The strategy seemed to work for Mr. Gore. He trounced Mr. Bradley in the subsequent Iowa caucuses after ambushing him in a debate on farm policy, singling out an obscure Senate vote that made Mr. Bradley seem insensitive to Iowa farmers hard-hit by floods. Mr. Bradley had voted for the main flood relief bill but against an amendment at the Senate party leadership's urging.

At this fall's Iowa J-J dinner, Mr. Gore will be watched closely to see whether he comes out of his self-imposed post-election hibernation as a lion or a lamb. During nearly nine months of holding his fire against President Bush, Mr. Gore has been under fire himself from Democratic partisans who argue he is precisely the right politician to go after Mr. Bush, for two reasons.

The first is their view that Mr. Gore was robbed of the presidency by Mr. Bush's own partisans in Florida and on the Supreme Court. But that argument smacks of sour grapes, however justified it might be, and Mr. Gore making it would open him to charges, from Republicans certainly, of being a sore loser.

The second rationale for using the J-J dinner to criticize the Bush record is by far the wiser - that Mr. Gore's own warnings of what Mr. Bush's then-proposed tax cut would do to the economy that flourished under the Clinton-Gore administration have come to pass.

So also have the then-vice president's predictions that the Bush tax cut would imperil Social Security and Medicare and dictate reductions in a range of desired domestic programs such as prescription drug benefits Mr. Bush said as a campaigner he wanted.

The latest projections by the Congressional Budget Office indicate the Bush administration will have to dip into the Social Security surplus to the tune of $9 billion this year. Mr. Bush's own budget director has acknowledged that the surplus will be cut to the bone by the tax cut and the economic downturn.

Delivering this message, however, also can present risks to Mr. Gore if he accompanies it with the sort of visible and audible suggestions of know-it-all superiority that apparently turned off many voters in last year's election. Mr. Gore's efforts at humorous chiding and even self-deprecation have at times fallen flat or seemed insincere. And as the late Republican master of negative campaigning, Lee Atwater, used to say, "If you can fake sincerity, you've got it made."

The Iowa J-J dinner comes at a propitious time for Mr. Gore if he can state the Democratic argument against Mr. Bush's handling of taxes and the economy without succumbing to wretched excess.

The Republican president is already being accused of breaking his promise not to touch the Social Security surplus. Democrats are comparing this "betrayal" with his father's famous broken pledge of "read my lips, no new taxes" that shook his party and undermined his re-election chances in 1992.

The argument of whether the junior Mr. Bush is breaking his promise will have been thoroughly chewed over by the time Mr. Gore takes the podium on the night of Sept. 29 in Des Moines. How he lends his own voice to the charge can determine how successful his re-entry into the political dialogue will be.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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