SITTING next to the vice president at a Monitor breakfast was a reminder of what Al Gore did for presidential candidate Bill Clinton when he accepted the second spot on the ticket: He shored up support for Mr. Clinton among the liberals who had preferred Paul Tsongas and had never really felt the Arkansas governor was one of them.
To that powerful element within the Democratic Party the ticket, with Mr. Gore on it, now was acceptable, even appealing. Democrats to the center and even to the right liked the cut of this young Tennessee senator. Whereas to many of them Clinton had seemed too political, too manipulative, Gore was someone they thought they could trust.
Clinton was still struggling in the poles when he picked Gore, running about even with George Bush and Ross Perot. With the selection of Gore, Clinton moved sharply upward in public favor. It wasn't Gore alone. It was the two of them who reached out so appealingly to the voters. But it's still arguable that it was Gore who got that ticket off the ground.
On the vice president's second visit with the breakfast press group since taking office, he was pushing the president's economic package, and he was most persuasive. When asked if the Clinton plan, riddled with concessions, weren't "merely half a loaf," Gore quipped that "it's seven-eighths of a loaf." And he interrupted a serious discussion at one point to ask for more syrup for his pancakes and then joined in the laughter when journalist Mark Shields ran out to the kitchen to serve the vice president's
It seems only a breath of time ago that Vice President Dan Quayle was also sitting at our side. What a difference an election makes! Mr. Quayle was also young and personable. But, enmeshed in questions about whether he had benefited from favoritism in receiving a National Guard slot during the Vietnam war, vice presidential candidate Quayle was, from the outset, a drag on the ticket. Quayle worked hard as a vice president, soon showing that he was conversant with all of the issues and that he could perfo rm ably at anything he was assigned to do. But he was of little help to Bush in the 1992 election.
The common assessment of vice presidents is that they really don't amount to much. But they really do - or can. Walter Mondale was a tremendous political asset to Jimmy Carter, arguably the "difference" in the thin victory over Gerald Ford.
That outcome can be looked at another way, too. Ford had dumped Nelson Rockefeller as his vice presidential candidate. The replacement, Robert Dole, did not campaign well. With Mr. Rockefeller retained on the ticket, Ford might have won.
Clinton instinctively seems to know that it adds to this administration's credibility to have Gore at his side. And he should be given credit for seeing the value in continually keeping the public aware that a Clinton-Gore team operation is at work. Clinton's willingness to share the spotlight with his vice president speaks of a president who feels very secure about himself. Can anyone imagine Lyndon Johnson letting Vice President Hubert Humphrey bask in the presidential limelight in such a way?
Gore's honeymoon with the public goes on and on, while Clinton's standing obviously has suffered. The vice president is involved now in a project aimed at making the federal government more effective. He says that he and the committee working on this reform are seeking to "reinvent government."
He points out how American industry has been able in recent years to greatly increase its efficiency by practically starting over and then finding better ways of getting jobs done. That, he says, is what he's hopeful of doing for government.