Is Al Gore The Voice Of The People?

The Veep is climbing in the polls as he bashes business, but he's taken plenty of cash from those he attacks

Bryant Henry is just the kind of independent voter Al Gore needs. The 49-year-old Chicago software consultant voted twice for Bill Clinton, is wary of the Religious Right's influence in the Republican Party, and calls George W. Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut "irresponsible." Still, Henry can't bring himself to click his mouse on Gore 2000. What's stopping him? Mostly, it's the Veep's tub-thumping "us vs. them" rhetoric, a staple of his stump speeches since the Democratic Convention. "It alienates me," says Henry. "It tells me to expect lots of government interference in business."

Savoring his postconvention surge in the polls, Gore hasn't been too worried about voters like Henry. But he ought to be. Although Gore's fiery pledge to battle corporate miscreants gave the Democrat an instant boost among diverse groups ranging from union members to stay-at-home moms, many swing voters worry that the Vice-President might overdo the populist shtick and veer off into old-fashioned liberalism. Indeed, while an Aug. 30-31 Newsweek poll found Gore opening up a 49% to 39% lead over Bush, the Democrat dropped behind among independents, 41% to 37%, and under-30 voters, 46% to 40%.

Gore sounds "so antibusiness, it's scary," says Beth G. Kopin, an interior designer from suburban Highland Park, Ill. "He basically is pitting one group against another. He talks about evil capitalists and industrialists. Those are the people who've built this country."

Gore's neopopulism has put him on a political tightrope: He must reassure moderate and independent voters that he is sufficiently pro-business to continue the economic boom. At the same time, he needs to convince core Democrats that he'll fight for "working families." That was precisely Gore's message at a Labor Day rally in Pittsburgh where he repeated his new mantra: "I'm for the people. They're for the powerful." On the hit list: HMOs and medical insurers, profiteering drugmakers, Big Oil, Big Tobacco, industrial polluters, and Beltway lobbyists.

MONEY MACHINE. But many of the same interests Gore is clubbing today have over the years contributed generously to the Democratic Party, Gore's own campaigns, and those of running mate Joseph I. Lieberman. Indeed, Gore, Lieberman, and Democratic political committees have received more than $20 million in this election cycle from the self-same corporate bad boys denounced by the nominee.

Lieberman in particular is a corporate money-raising machine. In his past two Senate elections in Connecticut, he has accepted more than $330,000 in political action committee gifts from two of Gore's top targets, the insurance and pharmaceutical industries--and he has been their frequent ally in legislative battles. Despite Gore's broadsides, dozens of corporations sponsored big-bucks events at the convention. Among them: oil giants Texaco, Chevron, and Occidental Petroleum; insurers CIGNA, AFLAC, and Mutual of Omaha; drug manufacturers Schering-Plough, Merck, and Bristol-Myers Squibb; and tobacco conglomerate Philip Morris.

"It's hard to square the anticorporate rhetoric of the Democratic Party with the reality of its corporate soft-money receipts," charges Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, a liberal watchdog group. "Both parties are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate donations."

Gore's biggest potential pitfall isn't misreading the public mood: A spate of recent polls show that voters strongly favor consumer protection against unchecked corporate giants. It's his inconsistencies. For starters, there's Gore's rapid conversion from Buddhist Temple "outreacher" to ardent campaign-finance reformer. And there's his tendency to surround himself with advisers from Corporate America.

MONEY TREE. Longtime Gore money man Peter Knight, now deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, has received more than $400,000 since 1996 to lobby for Schering-Plough. Political adviser Thomas Downey, a former Long Island congressman, counted Merck among his lobbying clients. And Gore media guru Carter Eskew toiled for the tobacco industry and Merck. What's more, Democratic Convention impresario Terry McAuliffe shook the corporate money tree for a record-breaking $26.5 million at a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser in May.

The company Gore keeps is particularly unsettling to swing voters attracted to his new Battlin' Al persona. "It bothers me," says independent Mamie P. Guerra, 67, a bank secretary in Chicago. "Tell me who your friends are, and I'll tell you who you are. It's telling me that he isn't sincere."

In executive suites, business leaders are grappling with the same question: Does Gore mean it, or is this merely political theater? Many, it seems, have already concluded it's the latter. While the Veep's tobacco proposals would cost that industry millions, the rest of his policy agenda would have little effect on the businesses he has bad-mouthed.

Most industry reps in Washington dismiss his overheated rhetoric as "phony populism," according to one prominent drug-company lobbyist. "He never talks about price controls. He never suggests that he will do anything other than make drugs available and affordable." There are plenty of skeptics on Gore's political left, too. "He's an imposter," says Green Party Presidential nominee Ralph Nader. "If he were a corporation, he'd be prosecuted by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive practices."

Other liberals echo this skepticism. "If you lined up the human species according to populist inclinations, [1896 Democratic Party champion] William Jennings Bryan would be on one end. [New Democrat] Al Gore might be on the other," insists former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, who clashed with Gore in policy disputes. "I don't recall a single issue on which the Vice-President has taken what might be called a populist stance. Business should rest assured that if Al Gore is elected, they will not have a populist at the helm."

Gore advisers, of course, take issue with the notion that the hero of the working class is merely lip-synching. "It is quite possible to be a President who fights for middle-class, working families and also creates conditions that help businesses flourish," says senior adviser Bob Shrum. And campaign spokesman Douglas Hattaway says Gore is his own man when it comes to the goals of benefactors. An example: Although advisers Eskew and Downey have both worked for Merck, Gore's Web site uses a Merck-marketed product, the ulcer and heartburn drug Prilosec, as an example of price gouging.

The Nashville crowd has a point. And clearly the Gore message has attracted voters far beyond the party's liberal base. According to an Aug. 25-29 BUSINESS WEEK/Harris Poll, 74% of Americans--including a majority of Republicans--agree with Gore's criticisms of large corporations. Among those feeling most strongly: women, the elderly, and baby boomers, all of whom had been slow to warm to Gore.

Still, the BW poll found genuine concern, especially among young voters and independents, that Gore may be overreaching in his assault on corporate evil. "What Gore's doing is wrong," says college student Donald G. McLaren, 19, a first-time voter from St. Louis. "A lot of corporations, with the exception of Microsoft and its monopolistic practices, have helped the economy. The job market is better than it has been, and taxes from corporations have increased dramatically." But the Veep's message is likely to keep resonating unless Republicans can paint him as an unprincipled pol ready to embrace any slogan that will help get him behind the desk in the Oval Office--the one where the populist buck stops.