Frame Game

Gore’s Vice Precedent 

No one ever accused Al Gore of being subtle. Monday afternoon, the vice president, whose name Republicans have spent years associating with “Buddhist temple” and “no controlling legal authority,” announced that he would make campaign-finance reform his first priority as president. Making your most embarrassing issue the focus of your campaign may seem counterintuitive. But let Gore show you how it’s done.

1. Drop a name. If nobody trusts you to pursue reform in your own name, pursue it in the name of someone more credible. In his speech, Gore referred 13 times to John McCain. “The McCain-Feingold bill will be the first domestic legislation I send to the Congress, on my first day in office,” said Gore. “I will fight as long as I have to, and as hard as I have to, to pass the bill that bears the names of Russ Feingold and John McCain.” To cement the connection, Gore delivered his speech in Wisconsin, with Feingold as a prop.

Gore showed how any politician can be linked to any cause through no more than six degrees of separation. “No one better embodies the heart of this grassroots movement than … Granny D, a 90-year-old grandmother from New Hampshire, who spent 14 months walking from California to Washington, D.C., to bring attention” to campaign reform, said Gore. “She was joined for part of that walk by my opponent, Bill Bradley, who along with John McCain, helped to put this issue at the forefront of this campaign.” The logic is inescapable: You like campaign reform, therefore you like Granny D, therefore you like Bradley for walking with her, therefore you like Gore for tipping his hat to Bradley after destroying Bradley’s candidacy.

2. Stake Dad’s claim. If you can’t find a commendable attribute or achievement in your own history, look for it in your family’s history. Every politician comes from a poor family, for example, if he looks back far enough. Gary Bauer bragged about being the son of a janitor. Even Steve Forbes, whose grandfather was rich, bragged that his grandfather started out poor. Gore only has to go back one generation to stake a family claim to fund-raising probity. “During and after the 1956 presidential election, my father led the most sweeping investigation of campaign contributions and spending that had been conducted up to that time,” Gore said Monday. “In 1970, my father lost his Senate seat, in part because of the special-interest money that was funneled into his opponent’s campaign by the Nixon dirty tricks operation. … If we believe in the ideal of one person, one vote, as my father so strongly did, then let us fight for the reforms that make sure every vote counts equally.”

3. Cite the game. When you’ve done something bad for which ordinary people see no excuse, assert the privileged moral sophistication of your profession. Military leaders, for example, insist that land mines, carpet bombs, and other devices are necessary in war in ways that civilians are too naive to understand. Gore extends this spin to politics. He’s not a thug. He’s a “fighter” who got his hands dirty raising the resources necessary to keep the country clean. “I understand all too well the irony of our current fund-raising system: Men and women of good intentions and high ideals want to protect the public interest but have to raise private money in order to do so,” he said Monday. “There are millions of people who depend upon those who care about the public interest to fight for them, and who would be the ones hurt most if advocates for the public interest unilaterally disarmed, and left the field of battle to those who oppose both the public interest and campaign-finance reform. That was the choice I felt I faced in 1996.”

4. Spread the blame. In case your listeners don’t accept your defense of this dirty business, make sure they associate it at least as much with your opponent as with you. In 1996, said Gore, “in fighting for what we believe in, Democrats, along with Republicans, engaged in fund raising that pushed the system to the breaking point and fueled further cynicism.” Now the GOP has become the bigger culprit, according to Gore: “Gov. Bush has refused to join with me to change the way we conduct our campaigns.” Bush “opposes McCain-Feingold,” and his “notion of campaign-finance reform is to raise the contribution limits so special interests can give even more and get even more in return.”

5. Milk your shame. If people think you ought to feel awful about what you’ve done, exploit their reproach. Tell them you feel so awful, you’ll make sure nobody ever does such a bad thing again. McCain used this trick to great effect, spinning the Keating Five scandal as the inspiration of his conversion to campaign-finance reform. Gore followed suit in his Super Tuesday victory speech: “Like John McCain, I bring a commitment born of personal experience to the battle for campaign reform. I’ve learned from my mistakes.”

Monday, Gore expanded on this confessional theme. “I understand the doubts about whether I personally am serious on campaign reform,” he said. “I may be an imperfect messenger for this cause.” From this, using McCain’s moral jujitsu, Gore concluded, “I know firsthand what is wrong with the way we fund political campaigns. I care very deeply about the integrity of our politics and, of course, about my own integrity as well. My commitment to changing America’s campaign-finance laws is both personal and profound.” Conversely, Gore charged that Bush “professes to see nothing wrong with the ills we seek to remedy.” The problem with Bush, on this view, is that he lacks the sinful experience necessary to know sin when he sees it.

This whole assault strikes Bush as crazy. “I couldn’t believe that he is going to make campaign-funding reform a cornerstone of his campaign,” Bush sputtered two weeks ago when Gore signaled his intention to elevate the issue. “The more he talks about campaign-funding reform, the better off it will be for my campaign.” That’s the conventional view of embarrassing issues. Evidently, it’s not Gore’s. And to think Bradley called him timid.