Pundit Central

Is Al Gore Better Off Today Than He Was Eight Days Ago?

The Democratic National Convention dominates the talk shows. Issue 1 is Al Gore’s acceptance speech. Issue 2 is Clinton’s shadow. Issue 3 is The Kiss.

Most pundits think Gore’s speech won on style but lost on substance. The message was “populism” or “class warfare,” depending on the commentator’s position on the ideological spectrum. Michael Barone ( The McLaughlin Group) captures the consensus by calling it a “good speech in service of a losing strategy,” given that populism hasn’t elected a Democrat since 1948, “the year Al Gore was born.” Even liberal apparatchik Eleanor Clift (MG) isn’t sure the speech accomplished Gore’s difficult task of rallying the Democratic base while reaching out to independent voters. Fred Barnes ( Fox News Sunday) and George Will (ABC’s This Week) think Gore’s twin messages of economic vitality and anti-corporate populism are contradictory. (Will calls it “sauerkraut ice cream,” “two ingredients that simply don’t go together,” and Barnes compares Gore to former Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs.) Paul Gigot (PBS’s NewsHour With Jim Lehrer) sums it up this way: “His message seems to be: ‘The country is rich as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.’ ” But Mara Liasson (FNS) and Michel Martin (TW) counter that you don’t have to be poor to feel oppressed by HMOs. Liasson and Doyle McManus ( Washington Week in Review) turn the conventional wisdom on its head by saying that the tone of the speech may have been Old Democrat, but the content was New Democrat. Robert Novak (CNN’s Capital Gang) stands alone in calling the speech “disappointingly pedestrian” in style and content alike.

Even the praise given to Gore’s speech is often backhanded. Michael Duffy (WWIR), Margaret Carlson (CG), and Juan Williams (FNS) call it the best speech Gore has ever given, but Duffy adds the caveat that the speech still wasn’t memorable. David Broder (WWIR) says the speech was uninspirational but at least it wasn’t pedantic. Joe Klein (NBC’s Meet the Press) says Gore “didn’t sound as if he was talking to a nation of second-graders,” and Kate O’Beirne (CG) applauds Gore’s effort to avoid sounding like he’s talking to “slow third-graders.” Only Jack Germond (MTP) complains about “theatre critics” who grade political speeches for style points.

All of this flies in the face of two new polls that show the Democratic convention completely erased Bush’s lead. A Newsweek poll shows Gore up 48 percent to 42 percent, and a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows Gore up 47 percent to 46 percent. Both polls have four-point margins of error, meaning that the race is now too close to call. Neither Nader nor Buchanan gets more than 3 percent in either poll. On CNN’s Late Edition, Bill Schneider says the polls show different results because Newsweek polled registered voters and CNN polled likely voters. Because the race is closer among likely voters than it is among registered voters, Schneider says a lower turnout favors Bush and a higher turnout favors Gore. The CNN poll shows that Gore got a 16-point bounce among women voters, who now favor him over Bush, Schneider adds. Shields (NH) comes the closest to offering an “oops!” for the commentariat’s Thursday night assessments of Gore’s speech, which were almost universally negative: “Our initial reaction may have been too harsh.” Novak (CG) explains the difference between the pundits’ and the people’s takes by saying the speech came across better on television than it did on the floor of the Staples Center.

Still, most pundits think Gore’s bounce won’t last. Michael Duffy (WWIR) thinks Gore is wasting valuable time targeting the Democratic base and lower-middle-class voters, two groups that Clinton didn’t need to spend much time on during the past two campaigns. (No one mentions that Gore will probably need 50 percent of the vote, a number that Clinton never achieved in two presidential elections.) Doyle McManus (WWIR), Michael Barone, and John McLaughlin (MG) think Gore needs to winnow his broad agenda to a smaller number of recognizable themes. And nearly everyone thinks Gore will need to go negative to win. Gigot (NH) thinks Gore’s positive speech was an attempt to build up his personal favorability rating so he can afford to go on the attack. Martin (WWIR) says Gore is going to need to be his own hatchet man, because Joseph Lieberman isn’t up to the task. But Barone says Gore’s acceptance of Lieberman’s positions on issues such as school vouchers will prevent Gore from vilifying Bush for holding similar views.

The pundits agree that neither Clinton’s convention speech nor the revelation that a new grand jury has been impaneled to investigate the Monica Lewinsky scandal had much impact on Gore’s campaign. Liasson says the grand jury investigation might even help Gore, given that Republicans didn’t fare very well during impeachment or in the ‘98 midterm elections. Lawrence O’Donnell (MG) says Gore has spent too much time distancing himself from Bill Clinton, and not enough time distancing himself from his own image, such as the belief that he is prone to exaggeration and lies. On MTP, William Safire predicts that Clinton will be indicted after his presidency ends, extending his shadow into the next administration. Safire adds that Bush is more likely than Gore to give Clinton a quick pardon.

The pundits can’t agree if Gore’s embrace of Tipper before his convention address should have been rated PG-13 (Shields) or X (Germond). Germond can’t get over the irony that Gore insisted a fund-raiser at the Playboy Mansion was “too racy,” but an “X-rated kiss” is okay for a national television audience. But more important, Germond says, is that women responded very favorably to the kiss. Tony Blankley (MG) suggests the gesture was calculated to portray Gore as a family man, but most pundits think it was spontaneous. Juan Williams (FNS) goes so far as to say the kiss may have wiped the morality issue off the political map. On the same show, Tony Snow says the kiss achieved what all the personal testimonials at the convention could not: It humanized Gore. “Unlike some political couples, the Gores looked like they’d done this sort of thing. A lot,” Snow says. “In retrospect, that big hot smooch was Al Gore’s defining moment, his way of saying ‘Read my lips: I’m not Clinton.’ “