Ballot Box

Will Gore Overpander?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.–The vice president appeared here today to amplify his many promises about Medicare. Not only would he create a new prescription drug benefit and make sure no beneficiary was forced into an HMO, Gore told the audience of about 1,000 people, mostly retirees, he also promised “tough new penalties for any HMO that tries to exclude or drop our seniors.” And while he was at it, he promised to “eliminate most co-payments and deductibles for important screening tests.” 

The audience loved it. And why wouldn’t they? Gore stopped just short of inviting everybody on an all-expense-paid cruise–just a block away from the headquarters of the International Shuffleboard Association. But this afternoon’s performance–like Gore’s recent move to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve–raised an interesting political question. Is it possible for a presidential candidate to pander too much? In recent weeks, the Gore campaign has seemed like an experiment designed to answer that question.

In a primary campaign, it pretty clearly is possible to overpander to special interest groups. Al Gore first found this out in 1988, when he tried so hard to please Jews voting in the New York primary that he made a fool out of himself. Never one to learn a political lesson too quickly, Gore repeated the performance in 2000. His effort to distance himself from his own administration over the Elián González case offended many of his core Democratic supporters without winning over very much of Republican-leaning Cuban-America.

Indeed, the environment of presidential primaries tends to be so rife with pandering–think Steve Forbes’ wooing of the religious right this year–that it sometimes rewards candidates who make a flourish of not truckling to the interest groups. Examples of pander-backlash candidates include Bruce Babbitt in 1988, Paul Tsongas in 1992 (he memorably slammed Bill Clinton as the “pander bear”), and John McCain in 2000. None of these men won his party’s nomination, but each got a lot of mileage out of standing up to constituencies within his own party. It’s also evident that primary-season pandering can come back to haunt a candidate in a general election. Walter Mondale’s efforts to tickle the tummies of such Democratic “special interests” as teachers, blacks, and union members contributed to his defeat in 1984.

In a general election, however, the downside to pandering is less obvious. It’s true that Ross Perot got a good deal of mileage out of his calls for “sacrifice” in 1992. But Bill Clinton, who pandered to the middle class with the promise of a tax cut and to the elderly with a variety of things including a proposal to control prescription drug prices, was the guy who won. In general elections, pandering tends to ignore the narrower groups that make up a party’s base in favor of broader constituencies. In other words, instead of gun owners or Teamsters, the general-election panderer tends to reach for the “middle class” (often called “the beleaguered middle class”) and the elderly (usually referred to as “our seniors”).

Broad-gauge, general-election pandering has a much better track record. In fact, I can’t think of a presidential candidate who ever lost a presidential election by offering too many tax cuts to the middle class or too many new goodies to the old. Consider what happened to the candidates who pandered marginally less than their opponents in the last several elections. I think you’d have to say that the underpanderers were Jimmy Carter in 1980, Walter Mondale in ‘84, Michael Dukakis in ‘88, and George Bush in ‘92. They all came in second. 

1996 was a bit of a tossup when it came to pandering. Bob Dole indulged in the practice by promoting a huge tax cut, while Bill Clinton mainly promised to protect existing middle-class programs. Clinton arguably pandered less than his opponent and won anyway. But Dole hardly lost the election because of excessive pandering. Without his tax-cut proposal, Dole might have done even more poorly than he did.

Bill Clinton has always been a masterful panderer because of his ability to appeal to special interest groups without giving away the store to them. Clinton can leave a room full of applauding union members certain that he has endorsed their positions on every issue they care about. Some time after he’s gone, they realize that Clinton escaped without signing on the dotted line. But even then, they don’t turn against them. The president has remained wildly popular among blacks despite his failing to do anything specific for them other than deciding not to end government-sponsored affirmative action programs. Clinton panders expressively, not specifically.

This is one of the many skills that Gore, who remains a much more literal-minded panderer, failed to learn from the master. When Gore sucks up, he does sign on the dotted line, promising more than is sensible. The vice president’s too-specific panders will come back to haunt him in the event he’s elected. Gore has been so emphatic about saving beneficiaries from HMOs that when he gets around to worrying about rising Medicare spending, his best method of cost control will be blocked. The same goes for Gore’s recently satisfied request that the president liberate some of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Gore’s stance not only contradicts a clear position he took seven months ago, it also means that it’s going to be harder for him to return to his old, sound arguments in favor of higher fuel taxes if he wins and oil prices plummet.

Gore’s falling poll numbers might be taken as evidence that a nominee can blow it by overpandering. But it’s still too soon to draw that conclusion. As I say, it’s never happened before.

Photograph of Al Gore on the Slate Table of Contents by Wim McNamee/Reuters.