Gore's struggle: to be different, yet the same
Vice president faces difficult task of distinguishing himself from president, while taking credit for their achievements.
WASHINGTON — When Al Gore launched his bid for the presidency just over a year ago, he was clearly trying to emerge from Bill Clinton's shadow, to become his own man.
At that time, he pointedly criticized his boss's personal behavior and promised "moral leadership" for America. Later, he moved his headquarters from insider Washington to outsider Nashville. And in the intervening months, he even broke ranks with the president on policy a few times, most notably, over Elian Gonzalez.
But despite these efforts, Al Gore has yet to be identified as Al Gore, political analysts say. If anything, what's emerged in the last 12 months is a man whose policy and tactics - if not his personality - very much mirror the president's.
"He has come out from Bill Clinton's shadow, but he hasn't identified who Al Gore is," says Paul Light, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution here.
Even the president seems to acknowledge this, remarking at his last press conference that, historically speaking, the emergence of a vice president is a "gradual process" until "one day it reaches ... a tipping point, and people kind of get it. They say 'Oh, there it is. There this person is.' "
This tipping point, added the president, will be the coming political conventions, when the presidential candidates are officially nominated.
Indeed, the Democrats' August convention in Los Angeles could be a pivotal moment for the vice president, an opportunity for him to introduce himself, on a personal level, to the nation. President Clinton will only appear on the first night - then the spotlight will be for Gore alone.
Everything old is new again
But so far, what America has seen is a casual-Friday candidate who very much echoes Clinton's policies and political modus operandi. Even his new campaign director, William Daley, comes from the Clinton team, having given up his job as Commerce Secretary to assist the vice president.
Most of the vice president's proposals - whether they be on Social Security, Medicare, tax cuts, the economy, education, or the environment - are either extensions of Clinton administration policies or revivals of White House plans that hit
For instance, tacking private investment accounts onto Social Security mirrors Mr. Clinton's 1999 proposal of USA accounts. And while the president talks up Gore's idea of using the budget surplus to pay down the debt and preserve Medicare, this was something Clinton himself was touting last year.
That familiar ring sounded again last month, when Gore proposed a slew of energy measures largely based on the administration's current approach of tax breaks and subsidies for environmentally friendly energy.
Perhaps Gore's most radical policy departure is handgun licensing - not opposed by Clinton by any means, but never attempted during his tenure because it would have no chance of passage.
School of scandal
Meanwhile, when it comes to handling scandal, Gore has clearly learned a thing or two from his boss.
When it was leaked that a top Justice Department prosecutor had recommended a special counsel to investigate the vice president's truthfulness on campaign fundraising, Gore responded in decidedly Clintonesque fashion - by going on the offensive. He promptly released a lengthy transcript of his interview with Justice officials, while pointing to Republicans as the source of the leak (remember Hillary Clinton's claim of a "vast, right-wing conspiracy"?).
The transcript itself even recalled the president's infamous parsing of words, as Gore offered interrogators his own definition of fundraising.
Jennifer Backus, spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, says it's only natural that Gore's policies reflect the president's. They've worked together for nearly eight years, and they're both centrist "New Democrats."
What the similarity shows, says Ms. Backus, is that "the Democratic party is more united now than in years."
That strength, and specifically, his own incumbency in a time of economic prosperity, is Gore's chief selling point, say political analysts. "The only condition in which Al Gore can win is as the incumbent president," says Mr. Light.
With that in mind, the vice president should forget trying to become his own man - especially since it's already clear he carries none of the personal baggage that has so often weighed down his boss, says James Thurber, director of congressional and presidential studies at American University here.
"He can't be his own man, and therefore, he shouldn't be talking about that, because he's going to stay the course," says Mr. Thurber.
But that doesn't appear to be the intention of the Gore campaign. Backus says the country will learn a lot more about Gore - the person - at the August convention.
The big moment
Historians, however, say if past conventions are any guide, there's no guarantee that the vice president will suddenly pop out with a clear identity - and that even if he succeeds, the moment could quickly pass.
"The real question is, do vice presidents ever become their own people?" asks Robert Dallek, presidential historian and biographer of President Lyndon Johnson.
Vice President Hubert Humphrey, for instance, did not break with Johnson on the Vietnam War until after the convention - when it was too late, says Mr. Dallek. Richard Nixon "never came out from under Ike's shadow," he says. And the victory of George Bush Sr. had less to do with his forming a separate identity than with the self-destruction of his opponent, Michael Dukakis.
Ironically, some say the challenge for the Gore campaign is to have the vice president be more like his boss - not less. The only problem is, Gore doesn't seem to have the charm gene. Rather, that belongs to Republican Gov. George W. Bush.
"The Al Gore that the public thinks they know is a very wooden, distant, not very funny, not very passionate leader," says Light. "To get away from that he has to become more passionate, more intimate, more casual, a better speaker, more friendly, more intimate - in short, Bill Clinton."
"It's almost like in order to be his own man and win, he's got to be more like Bill Clinton, which undermines the effort to be his own man," he adds. No wonder Gore has yet to solve the identity question.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society