On policy matters, Gore's No. 1 adviser is ... himself

His self-reliant style contrasts with Bush's cadre of experts. But will it work in the White House?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When it comes to understanding hard policy options, Al Gore is a committee of one.

With an approach to governing that has been uniquely self-reliant for as long as anyone can remember, Mr. Gore is not a man to be trifled with when it comes to command of the issues. Not on the stump. Not in candidate-to-candidate debates. Not even in meetings with his staff.

Now, as he vies for the highest political office in the land, his decisionmaking style is coming under close scrutiny - and if it reveals a detail-oriented, even brilliant intellect, it also raises questions about overconfidence and a reluctance to listen, really listen, to others.

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Gore's approach stands in marked contrast to that of his rival, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. Mr. Bush is candid about his governing style: Set the agenda and establish the underlying principles that guide decisionmaking, but leave the nitty gritty to a small army of trusted advisers. As aides tell it: Governor Bush sets goals; the policy shop, tightly coordinated out of Austin, works out the details.

That "don't sweat the small stuff" style, though, has left Bush vulnerable to charges that he doesn't always understand complicated issues. Indeed, at the GOP convention in Philadelphia, the Bush team distributed hundreds of pages of policy papers to each delegate - something Gore is not replicating at his party's convention here in Los Angeles.

Gore doesn't need to shore up his policy credentials, says James Carville, a former campaign adviser to President Clinton. What Gore does need, he adds, is to get out his life's story.

That story portrays a man who, from his earliest days in government as a Tennessee congressman, developed a record for plunging into the minutiae of technical subjects.

In his first term on Capitol Hill, Gore made headlines by grilling corporate executives on oil pricing, flammable pajamas for infants, and the human costs of toxic waste dumps. During hearings, the tough questions lobbed at witnesses he had drafted himself.

"Staff meetings could become excruciating Socratic affairs in which Gore kept digging until his questions exposed the limits of an aide's knowledge in a particular area," writes biographer Bill Turque.

Today, his closest advisers can be counted on one hand. They include his wife, Tipper Gore, and daughter Karenna Gore Schiff. Outside this inner circle, he's built a team that includes both New Democrats, who masterminded the party's move to the political center and into the White House in 1992, and old Democrats, who remain convinced that the shift has gone too far.

A trademark of the Gore policy style is his systematic approach to learning new subjects. When he bones up, he does so in earnest. Many of those who contributed most to those efforts are now close advisers.

*National security adviser Leon Fuerth. Gore, in his third term in the US House, called on Mr. Fuerth, a former foreign-service officer, to help him gear up for a leadership role on arms control. The two men met weekly for a year, working their way through the literature on throw weights and warhead-to-silo ratios.

*Senior policy adviser Elaine Kamarck, a Harvard University professor who emerged as a key player in helping Democrats win the White House in 1992. In a 1989 paper, "The Politics of Evasion," she argued that Democrats had to regain the political center and purge the party of "liberal fundamentalism" if they were to win back working families won over by the Reagan Revolution. Co-author William Galston, a professor at the University of Maryland, has also joined the Gore team as a leading policy adviser.

*Campaign manager Donna Brazile. A founding member of the National Political Congress of Black Women, Ms. Brazile traces her roots to the old Democratic Party. She has worked for the District of Columbia's delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Brazile is credited with shifting the Gore 2000 campaign from Washington to Nashville.

*Carter Eskew, director of media and strategy. He has known Gore since 1973, when they met at the Nashville Tennessean, where Gore was a reporter and Mr. Eskew was an intern. They quickly became friends, and during Gore's first US Senate race, Eskew became his advertising consultant. Most recently, he has refocused the Gore campaign on the needs of working families.

The Gore team is not without tension, sometimes pulled between the political advisers and the centrist policy team. Some analysts say these tensions could be heightened now that Sen. Joseph Lieberman has joined the ticket. Mr. Lieberman shares many of the centrist views of the New Democrats, including support for experiments in school vouchers - a policy that is anathema to the party's core union supporters.

In a meeting with President Clinton at the Democratic convention this week, teachers unions urged Democrats to hold the line on opposing public funds for private-school vouchers. The teachers unions are key to get-out-the vote efforts in November, and a top concern is defeating pro-voucher ballot initiatives in California and Michigan. Some union officials worry that Lieberman may soften Gore's stance on the issue.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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