Gore taps boom-time discontent

Despite prosperous economy, there's room for outrage - and the vice president has devised a message that heeds it.

Throughout history, only a handful of presidential campaigns have caught fire by rallying the poor and down-trodden against the rich and powerful. Even then, such populist appeals resounded only in the darkest economic hours.

Yet today, amid the day-glo glory of the brightest economy in US history, Al Gore is brandishing a new type of populism - a mellowed-out version that's targeted more at the middle class than the poor and is slim on plans for radical change.

It's a calculated risk, one intended in part to portray Republican challenger George W. Bush as aloof and elitist by comparison. The target audience: disillusioned independents and people of any political stripe who feel they work too hard for what they earn.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the brightness of the times, there are strains of public opinion that suggest the Democratic nominee's message may resonate.

*There's outright jealousy of the rich. In a culture saturated with Lotto jackpots, Regis millionaires, and dotcom billionaires,

class envy is bubbling.

*There's the growing rich-poor gap - and even the many middle-classers who say they're financially wobbly.

*As Republican straight-talker John McCain proved, even in times of plenty, there's room for outrage at powerful interests.

"People say they're happy, but they could be happier," says New Hampshire pollster Dick Bennett. "They say they're working harder and longer - and that there are other people who make all the money but don't have to work at all." Besides, he adds, in boom times there's just more whining: "When the economy is doing well, they have the luxury of complaining."

Whatever the reason, Mr. Gore seems to be gaining ground with this approach. His post-convention bump in the polls is holding, so far. Surveys in Michigan, Minnesota, and New Jersey, where he had been trailing Mr. Bush, show him ahead or even. He's boosted his once-skinny lead in California.

The Republicans, for their part, are taking steady aim at some of Gore's populist themes. Right after the Democratic convention, Mr. Bush characterized his rival's speech as divisive. And the GOP's new $7 million round of TV commercials - which start running in key states today - takes aim at one of Gore's most trusty populist applause lines, a promise to provide prescription drugs for seniors in the face of pharmaceutical-industry opposition.

Still, 2000 seems an odd time to invoke the populist traditions. It was during a decade-long farm crisis in the late 1800s that the famously flamboyant William Jennings Bryan championed "toilers everywhere," including pitchfork-wielding farmers. He won the Democratic nomination - and lost the presidential race - three times.

Or there was Franklin Roosevelt, who led the weary masses out of the Great Depression while railing eloquently against "economic royalists." It was a time of widespread unemployment and public desire for government involvement.

Gore's version of populist style and substance, though, is decidedly muted by comparison.

For one thing, he is no grand orator. His most impassioned populist phrase is, "I will fight for you."

Also, compared with past populists, Gore has a modest reform agenda. Roosevelt forged the New Deal paradigm of big-government programs caring for many citizens.

But Gore learned during the Clinton administration's losing battle for universal healthcare that big government is no longer popular. In fact, according to Gallup pollsters, a majority of Americans think government is doing too much and should leave more to individuals and businesses.

To this way of thinking, "the fact that Gore doesn't propose to do all that much arguably enhances his electoral appeal," says William Leuchtenburg, a historian at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Even Gore's dull speaking style helps, he says. If he were a fiery orator, he might scare people into thinking he really wanted change. "Someone who's safe and dull can safely make this kind of populist appeal."

Gore's message seems to be resonating among some.

Half the people in families making $25,000 to $50,000 a year say they're financially shaky, says pollster John Zogby. And no modern president has won without this income group, he says. That's why Gore is targeting them. Bush hopes his $1.3 trillion tax cut will woo them.

Also, by pledging to sign a campaign-finance-reform bill, Gore not only hopes to mute controversy surrounding his own fundraising tactics, but also to capture some of the outrage at special interests that Senator McCain tapped. If it fends off a challenge from consumer advocate Ralph Nader on the left, his campaign staff suggest, so much the better.

But others aren't so sure Gore's pitch - what Mr. Celente calls "propaganda populism" - will work.

Bush adviser Charles Black argues Gore is misreading the electorate. "This kind of class warfare isn't the tone independent voters are looking for." He says Bush's plan to restore civility to Washington will resonate better.

Adds Professor Leuchtenburg: "He's using populism to appeal to moderates - and that's an oxymoron."

In the end, "the fine print is that Gore is a centrist who picked the head of centrist Democrats" - Sen. Joe Lieberman - "as his running mate."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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