Will Bashing Business Keep Paying Off For Gore?

The Veep's fightin' words at the Democratic Convention--and since--have ignited his candidacy

It was the kind of populist riff that revs up traditional Democratic voters. "My friends," the nominee roared, "the question we are to decide is: Upon which side will the Democratic Party fight?" To the roar of the Illinois crowd, he answered his own question: "On the side of the struggling masses, who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic Party."

Sound familiar? Well, it's not Fightin' Al Gore, but it could have been. Instead, it was William Jennings Bryan, the '96 Democratic Presidential nominee--1896, that is--as he tried to woo voters left behind by that century's New Economy, the Industrial Revolution.

So how well does business-bashing sell in our new millennium's New Economy? Fine so far, based on Gore's performance in recent polls. After trailing for months against his GOP challenger, George W. Bush, the Vice-President finally seems to have gained his footing. Gore has pulled ahead with not only the populace at large but with several key voting blocs, including working women and independents, says an Aug. 20 Reuters/Zogby Poll of 1,004 likely voters. That's quite a turnaround considering that after the Republican Convention in early August, Bush led by a yawning 49% to 32%.

But Gore's is not a scatter-gun attack on unbridled corporate greed, the old-style class warfare of Bryan's time. His is a new brand of populism based on consumer rights and anger over such modern demons as higher gasoline and prescription-drug prices, the red tape involved in modern medical care, and pollution of public lands and waterways.

Gore's neo-populist model taps into a growing public backlash against the concentration of corporate power, yet he does so without attacking business in general. So as he launched his general-election campaign with an Aug. 18-21 riverboat trip through the same Midwestern heartland that Bryan stumped a century ago, his targets were popular corporate malefactors: Big Tobacco and Big Oil, pharmaceutical giants and HMOs, gunmakers and big polluters.

Republicans shouldn't be surprised at the resonance of Gore's message--certainly not after the relative success of the insurgent candidacies of Arizona Senator John McCain and Green Party nominee Ralph Nader. According to a Business Week/Harris Poll conducted from June 29 to July 5, during the uproar over higher oil prices and prescription-drug benefits for seniors, 82% of Americans agreed that business "had gained too much power over too many aspects of American life," up from 71% in 1996. And 74% say big companies have too much influence over government policymakers, vs. 40% for labor unions and just 2% for small business. Significantly, these anticorporate sentiments transcend economic class and education level.

Given these attitudes, it is also not surprising that Gore would make campaign-finance reform a centerpiece of his campaign and a top legislative priority for 2001. So-called soft-money contributions are the currency of corporate influence over politics and politicians. By pushing for an end to such campaign fundraising, Gore hopes to tap the same support that gave McCain, Nader, and even Gore's primary opponent, Bill Bradley, their early momentum.

Even so, populism is definitely not the language of the New Economy. It is, however, well understood in Old Economy states from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, where, paradoxically, the first New Economy election will be ultimately decided. Here, voters are less optimistic about their economic futures and more concerned about the loss of manufacturing jobs to overseas plants. These voters, many of them blue-collar union workers, are prime targets of the new Gore message. "I don't feel that big conglomerates are good for the workforce," says Pat Bittick, 37, an industrial electrician for Alcoa Foil Products Inc. in St. Louis.

Gore was practically a sounding board for such angst at the Democratic Convention. Clearly, his promise to "fight for working Americans" against "powerful interests" helped him among economically hard-pressed groups that had been reluctant to embrace his candidacy. Among them: working women and stay-at-home moms, who are worried about such kitchen-table issues as education, health care, and elder care.

Still, the biggest shift has already taken place--among union members. At one point during the GOP convention, Bush had closed to within 3 percentage points among union members, according to a Voter.com Battleground Poll. But Gore opened up a 54-30 lead during the Democratic confab. "A lot of working people are getting tired of losing all of the good-paying jobs," says Jose L. Gudino, who has worked for Madison Paper Co., an Alsip (Ill.) newsprint manufacturer for 20 years.

GOOD TIMING. The backlash against corporate bigness is just one factor at work in Campaign 2000. Some observers say the booming economy has made it easier for affluent voters to consider Gore-style populism. "In a time of great prosperity, you can be fiscally responsible and help people who have been left behind," says Vanderbilt University political scientist Erwin Hargrove. "If you're for fiscal sanity [like Gore], you can stretch the envelope a bit."

Consequently, Gore advisers think they can appeal to both New Economy and Old Economy voters by carefully modulating the populist message. Conspicuously absent from his hit parade: Main Street, Wall Street, Detroit's Big Three, and Silicon Valley. "You can be in favor of economic policies that allow business to flourish while at the same time trying to deal with the areas where some businesses have so much power that they hurt ordinary people," argues Gore message guru Bob Shrum.

So far, the plan has worked. Gore has erased huge deficits among two swing voting blocs that have been hostile to him most of this year: independents and suburbanites. Among households earning $50,000 to $75,000 a year, the Veep has seized a 49%-to-38% lead, according to the Reuters/Zogby Poll, after trailing 51% to 32% after the Republican convention.

While Gore's rhetoric may be supercharged, his policy proposals--backing the patient bill of rights and a prescription-drug benefit for Medicare recipients--basically follow turf staked out by the Clinton Administration. Indeed, Wall Street seems relatively unconcerned by the candidate's neo-populism. "Gore is really a pretty centrist Democrat," says William Dudley, chief U.S. economist for Goldman, Sachs & Co. "His choice of [Connecticut Senator] Joe Lieberman for Vice-President proves that." Adds Mark P. Vitner, an economist at First Union Capital Markets Group in Charlotte, N.C.: "Businesses know that you can't pay too much attention to what politicians say during the election [campaign], because they'll say anything to get elected. No President will turn out to be truly anti-business."

That may be so. But Republicans vow to paint Gore as a throwback to the failed populist liberalism of Walter F. Mondale and George McGovern. "Gore can't pull this off," scoffs GOP strategist Rich Galen. "He calls it populism, but it's 1930s-style management-bashing, liberal-labor rhetoric." What's more, the GOP will portray Gore as a hypocrite by highlighting his financial ties to some of the same industries he's now attacking.

UNFAZED. What do the targets of Gore's crusade think of it? "There the politicians go again," sighs a senior official of one multinational targeted by Gore. "It's something we expect as part of the give and take of business." Even one of Gore's corporate miscreants thinks that his record belies his bark. "It is a Presidential election year, and we recognize that the Vice-President is in a challenging race," says Judith H. Bello, executive vice-president of Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America. "But on real issues, not rhetoric, the Vice-President has been a good friend of the pharmaceutical industry."

In coming weeks, Bush will focus on policies designed to win back fickle swing voters, notably education and tax cuts. But the GOP nominee admitted on Aug. 22 that Gore's populist assertion that Bush favors "huge tax cuts for the rich" had taken hold. "I've got to do a better job of making it clear" that Bushonomics won't blow the surplus, Bush told reporters. "I'm not changing my opinion on it because it's the absolute right thing to do for America."

It's too early to tell if Gore's neo-populist rhetoric marks the invention of a new political movement or is simply another tactical reinvention. But unlike prior shifts in campaign strategy, this one has dramatically changed the dynamics of the race. And considering the underlying public uneasiness with Corporate America, it would be a mistake for Republicans to be too dismissive.