'I Am My Own Man': Introducing the New Al Gore

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So this is the Al Gore we'd be in for. No great communicator — Gore ran through his lines like a man determined to cram an hour of speech into 45 minutes, barreling through applause lines and sounding a lot more nervous than maybe a president should be. No great commander — this Gore, out of all the ones we think we know, inspired more sympathy than awe. But the aspiring vice president who introduced himself to the American electorate Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, declaring "I stand here tonight as my own man, and I want you to know me for who I truly am," was a touch more human than the clumsy robot that campaign oratory usually makes of him. And apparently not such a New Democrat after all:

"My focus is on working families, people trying to make house payments and car payments, working overtime to save for college and do right by their kids... So often, powerful forces and powerful interests stand in your way, and the odds seemed stacked against you — even as you do what's right for you and your family."

"Big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMO's. Sometimes you have to be willing to stand up and say no so families can have a better life."

"And that's the difference in this election. They're for the powerful, and we're for the people."

If this wasn't the class warfare that so unnerves the middle-income undecideds in this era of constant economic promotion — and indeed, Gore's rail against the Republicans' "huge tax cut for the wealthy at the expense of everyone else" certainly edged up to that line — it was a ringing echo of his father's attentive populism that seemed to belong in a bygone era. Al Gore, people's servant and the people's fighter.

Consider the Democratic base energized. They now have a vice presidential candidate who leans far to their right but obligingly doesn't talk like it, and a presidential candidate whose apparent true self plans to do his triangulating not between liberals and Republicans, but somewhere between Joe Lieberman and Bill Bradley. Not quite Che Guevera, leading poor against rich, but something not far from Ralph Nader, leading workers against corporations — which, like all politics' safest enemies, can be cast as non-humans.

That may prove scary to those crucial swing voters who have thrived in this new stock-option age, who in prosperity have no taste for war. But Thursday night Gore had a backup plan he has always felt will trump George W. Bush at the end of the day: Tell those voters exactly what he plans to fight for. And then they can take or leave him, able to ignore his face and vote, up or down, on his battle plan.

"I will not go along with any proposal to strip one out of every six dollars from the Social Security trust fund and privatize the Social Security that you're counting on... We will balance the budget every year, and dedicate the budget surplus first to saving Social Security. In the next four years, we will pay off all the national debt this nation accumulated in our first 200 years."

"I promise you once again: I will fight for a prescription drug benefit for all seniors under Medicare... We will move toward universal health coverage, step by step, starting with all children. Let's get all children covered by the year 2004."

"I will not go along with any plan that would drain taxpayer money away from our public schools and give it to private schools in the form of vouchers... I will fight to rebuild and modernize our crumbling schools, and reduce class size... Now let's set a specific new goal for the first decade of the 21st century: high-quality universal preschool, available to every child, in every family, all across this country."

"We also have to give middle-class families help in paying for college with tax-free college savings, and by making most college tuition tax-deductible."

"Every child in America, anywhere in America, ought to be able to turn on the faucet and get a glass of safe, clean drinking water... On the issue of the environment, I've never given up, I've never backed down, and I never will... And I say it again tonight: We must reverse the silent, rising tide of global warming."

"We must welcome and promote truly free trade. But I say to you: It must be fair trade. We must set standards to end child labor, to prevent the exploitation of workers and the poisoning of the environment."

"We will double the federal investment in medical research. We will find new medicines and new cures — not just for cancer, but for everything from diabetes to HIV/AIDS."

"We will honor the memory of Matthew Shepard, Joseph Ileto and James Byrd, whose families all joined us this week, by passing a law against hate crimes."

"I want to set another new, specific goal: to cut the crime rate year after year, every single year throughout this decade... I'll fight to add another 50,000 new police — community police who help prevent crime by establishing real relationships between law enforcement and neighborhood residents, which, incidentally, is the opposite of racial profiling, which must be brought to an end."

"I will fight for a crime victims' bill of rights, including a constitutional amendment to make sure that victims, and not just criminals, are guaranteed rights in our justice system... I'll fight to toughen penalties on those who misuse the Internet to prey on our children and violate our privacy. And I'll fight to make every school in this nation drug-free and gun-free."

"I believe in the right of sportsmen and hunters and law-abiding citizens to own firearms. But I want mandatory background checks to keep guns away from criminals, and mandatory child safety locks to protect our children."

"I will make sure our armed forces continue to be the best-equipped, best-trained, and best-led in the entire world."

"I promise you that campaign finance reform will be the very first bill that Joe Lieberman and I send to Congress."

Deep breath.

"So those are the issues, and that's where I stand."

No wonder he was talking so fast. Some centrism — "reform" the estate tax, end the marriage penalty "the right way, the fair way," a few vagaries about cleaning up pop culture. Plenty of liberalism. And one truly terrifying thing: "If I'm your president, I'm going to keep on having open meetings all over this country." Gore's answer to George W. Bush's superior style: volume, volume, volume.

But there it is. This is Al Gore's plan, and this is Al Gore, at least for now. He wrote the speech himself, mostly, and came as close as he ever has to what some believe could be a winning admission: He doesn't look so good on the stump. But he'll work and think hard in the Oval Office. "If you entrust me with the presidency, I know I won't always be the most exciting politician. But I pledge to you tonight: I will work for you every day and I will never let you down." The implication, of course, is that Al Gore really does know what he's about.

Now, maybe, we do too.