Comment: Should Gore Do a Humphrey?

When we last visited the campaign fallout from President Clinton's deal to admit China to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the AFL-CIO was gearing up to make the deal's defeat a top legislative priority, even at the cost of weakening the Democratic nominee. That would presumably be Vice President Gore, whom labor has endorsed. Meanwhile, House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, frantically working to avoid a NAFTA-style donnybrook, was trying to broker some kind of compromise that would keep labor on board.

Now Gephardt and Democratic Whip David Bonior are proposing this: The White House should insist that China embrace core labor rights as part of the deal, both for itself and as a WTO standard, and in return labor would support China's entry to the WTO. This would effect a major rapprochement between Gore and the AFL-CIO, but there are two obstacles to the deal—the People's Republic of China and the president of the United States.

Beijing would surely see this as a whole new demand, and a deal breaker. You can just imagine the People's Republic tolerating genuinely independent labor unions. Clinton, in effect, would have to choose between a business-driven "legacy"—the admission of an unreconstructed China to the WTO—and the health of the Gore campaign. And Gore would have to choose between his labor allies and his president. In the 1994 NAFTA mess, Gephardt was able to work with the administration to devise a fig leaf, the labor and environmental side agreements, which turned out to be almost useless. The Republicans took over Congress, and labor will not be mollified with a fig leaf again. But if Gore could distance himself from Clinton's behavior in the Lewinsky affair, a far less consequential piece of public business, why not a break over the China policy? People of my generation (and youngsters who studied the '60s in college) will vividly remember that in 1968 the Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, waited just too long to break with President Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam bombing policy. The delay cost Humphrey the election. Maybe Gore should "do a Humphrey" on Clinton's China policy, and publicly dissent from the China-WTO deal unless it includes meaningful democratization of the People's Republic. That would also go a long way toward making up for Gore's unfortunate image as Beijing's bagman in Washington. Stay tuned.

Gore certainly won the last round of his intramural battle with Bill Bradley. Better for both men, and for the Democrats, that this sparring occur now, since it will demonstrate who has the stuff to enter into the November election against the Republicans. Bradley, in the middle innings, demonstrated three serious and potentially fatal weaknesses for a candidate.

First, though he put forth impressively large-hearted liberal proposals—on child poverty, campaign finance reform, and health care, among others—the rhetoric was mostly an idiom of upscale reformism and noblesse oblige. Let's help those less fortunate than ourselves. As our friend Stanley Greenberg observes, this sort of rhetoric is necessary but not sufficient to win nomination and election. To build a coalition of middle-class, working-class, and poor voters, the rhetoric needs to honor the struggle of workaday families, not to appeal just to the self-interest of the poor and the charitable impulses of the rich. Shades of John Lindsay.

Second, some of the proposals were poorly thought out, notably the one on health care. Though Gore's pitch to black audiences that Bradley was abandoning Medicaid was demagogic—the Clinton health plan of 1993 also folded Medicaid into a broader universal program—Bradley's plan was surprisingly conservative in its particulars and wrong on its cost projections. The idea is that the poor would be able to shop around for private health plans, just like federal employees, but subsidized by tax credits. This "premium support" approach risks leaving the poor with inferior private health plans if Congress doesn't appropriate enough money to cover the shortfall between the value of the tax credit and the cost of good coverage. It is short of a full entitlement to high-quality care. And it is uncomfortably similar to the approach being peddled by the Republicans and the health insurance industry. Extrapolating from the federal employees' program to produce cost estimates is highly misleading, since federal employees are both healthier and wealthier than the average poor family and can afford to pay more of the premium out of pocket.

Third, when Gore took off the gloves and began going after Bradley, the former New Jersey senator was flummoxed. At first he ignored the attacks; then when they began doing damage, his responses and those of his surrogates sounded whiny: Gore was "going negative." In fact, despite the occasional whiff of demagoguery, most of Gore's challenges were on the issues. At this writing, Bradley and Gore are at last starting to engage on the issues. But it is Gore who is sounding disciplined and focused and Bradley who seems not quite ready for prime time, though lately Bradley has scored a few good counterpunches. All of this, of course, is exactly the function of primary debates. If the direct engagements are energizing and focusing Gore, and leaving Bradley to come across as detached and annoyed, this is useful data. There is plenty of time for additional course corrections and on-the-job learning by both men. By New Hampshire, we should have a pretty fair idea of who will be the more effective candidate against the Republican nominee.

Aborting Mission W?

Imagine this. George W. Bush goes into a serious fade in New Hampshire and never quite recovers. The Granite State has certainly destroyed other front-runners. But what does the Republican Party do then? The situation is unprecedented, should Bush collapse, because the rest of the field does not include a plausible second choice.

John McCain, the Democrats' favorite Republican, may well beat Bush in New Hampshire, but he is considered a traitor by most of his party. Too independent and unreliable. Too untethered to business special interests. It is possible to imagine McCain drawing a lot of independents into Republican primaries, but very hard to image him actually overtaking Bush among Republicans. The rest of the field is just plain flaky. Forbes looks more and more like a man from another planet; the more exposure his fortune buys, the more voters recoil. Alan Keyes sounds like a man whose meds need to be adjusted. Gary Bauer, the family values man, scores even below Keyes. Orrin Hatch, a decent and serious legislator, can't seem to get voters to take him seriously.

Republican bigwigs I have interviewed are practicing a strategy of denial. A Bush swoon is so unbearable that it just won't happen. The money, the name recognition, and the coaching will carry him through. But suppose he just keeps fading? Suppose the more he is known, the worse he does in a matchup against Gore or Bradley?

Does he abdicate in favor of Jeb, the smarter governor brother who was denied his birthright only because he was younger? Do party elders meet in some smoke-filled room and draft, say, Jack Kemp, or Lamar Alexander, or maybe Colin Powell? Alas for the Republicans, it doesn't work that way anymore. The smoke-filled rooms are gone. The nomination process is all too democratic. Most of the filing deadlines have come and gone, George W. will probably stagger to nomi-nation, and Democrats will have the pleasure of campaigning against an empty suit.

Saint Ralph

Speaking of filing deadlines, it now appears certain that Ralph Nader will run for president again, presumably as the Green Party candidate. The concept is that Nader will push politics to the left, drawing in new people, rais-ing issues that neither Republicans nor Democrats want to talk about, and reaching the 5-percent threshold nationally so that the Green Party will qualify for federal matching funds in 2004. This is a familiar theme of fringe parties running candidates as an "organizing strategy." Nader supporters also contend that most of the new people brought in would very likely vote Democratic for House and Senate, increasing the chances that the Democrats would take back Congress.

I have very mixed feelings about this tack. On the one hand, I revere Nader. He is the one widely beloved figure who can make fairly radical ideas about citizenship and corporate reform sound entirely mainstream. His enterprise, over the years, has been an oasis ofdecency and public purpose. And he and his people have had enormousinfluence for the public good, mostrecently on the WTO.

On the other hand, his 1996 campaign was poorly thought out and made his world view seem far less popular than it actually is. He did not take his candidacy seriously and left his allies confused. I dispute the entire concept of running for president as an organizing tool. Nader has the name recognition and prestige to run for president—and God knows it would be salutary to have more progressive issues injected into the election debate. But if he mounts a campaign, Nader should behave and sound like a man who is running for president, who wants to be president, and who is conceivable as president. You don't run for president in order to get matching funds for the next guy.

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