The following editorial exerpt appeared in today's edition of the Washington Post: "I stand here tonight as my own man," Al Gore declared Thursday night, "and I want you to know me for who I truly am." In what had been called, more times than he probably cared to hear, the most important speech of his political life, Vice President Gore took a big step toward defining himself as a man of conviction and purpose. To persistent doubts about his political ability, Gore answered both implicitly, by confidently delivering a confident speech, and explicitly, by arguing that, while "I know I won't always be the most exciting politician," the job he seeks "is more than a popularity contest. It's a day-by-day fight for people."
In so declaring, Gore sought also to frame the election in populist terms; he would fight for "working families," he said, while his rival would stand on the side of the powerful. And to answer the charge that he has reinvented himself once too often, Gore presented his affinity for the vulnerable as lifelong and rooted in the Tennessee mountain liberalism of his parents, who grew up poor before rising to join the Washington establishment.
In a campaign season in which voters are said by pollsters to disdain anything resembling "negative campaigning," the vice president tried to distinguish himself from Republican rival George W. Bush by means of a heavy reliance on substance and specifics. Gore's unspoken message was that he has the experience, knowledge and general heft that the less-experienced Texas governor lacks. At times, he delivered less specificity than advertised: He promised to save Social Security, but did not say how, and even vowed not to raise the retirement age, which will only make the saving harder. He vowed to make health care more affordable and available, but also lashed out at the HMO "bean counters" who have helped keep health care costs from rising faster.
But on many issues Gore was straightforward, his positions more constructive than those put forward by Republican majorities in Congress in recent years. He vowed to make campaign finance reform his first priority. He promised to support gun control, abortion rights, environmental protection and universally available preschool. Probably the most important question facing the next administration will be fiscal how much faith to put in predictions of a growing surplus, and how to allot that surplus as and if it materializes. Bush favors a much larger tax cut than Gore; Gore would spend more on health and education, and also pay down more of the nation's debt. Given the looming retirement of the baby boomers, and the claim they will put on pension and health funds for the foreseeable future, Gore's priorities are more prudent.
Gore made a good start Thursday night of highlighting his differences with Bush. It's not clear how Gore's populist rhetoric will play, nor even exactly what it means in some cases especially given the array of powerful interests from whom the Democratic Party no less than the Republican is greedily lapping up contributions. But he probably gave his campaign, which trails in polls, as much of a lift as could be expected from this convention.
The vice president is running at a time of remarkable prosperity, which ironically offers both advantage and peril. Gore will seek, as he did Thursday night, to associate himself with that economic success. But the good times also might lead some voters to think they can take a chance on change. So Gore stressed that prosperity should not lead to complacency. "For all of our good times, I am not satisfied," he said. And he refused to rest on the successes of the past eight years, saying he well understands that the election "is not an award for past performance." It's as good a place as any to begin the real campaign.