August 1, 2002
Gore's loss still chafes party
Democrats make failed campaign key topic at huddle
By GEORGE E. CONDON JR.
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
NEW YORK – No matter how hard they try, Democrats can't
seem to get past their narrow loss of the presidency in 2000.
When the leading hopefuls for the 2004 nomination gathered
this week in New York, they couldn't stop rehashing the mistakes
made by former Vice President Al Gore, the front-runner who
stayed away but whose rhetoric still grates on party centrists.
The frustration of the contenders who showed up at the annual
meeting of the Democratic Leadership Council was evident.
"I'm not going backward. I'm going forward," said Massachusetts
Sen. John F. Kerry when asked after his speech to comment on
Gore's 2000 strategy.
But as much as the party wants to focus on the large task of
ousting President Bush from the White House, there are
Democratic officeholders – many of them centrists or moderates
– who don't want to let go of the past just yet.
At issue for them is Gore's "people vs. the powerful" mantra, a
theme they believe cost him wins in key states and left him
agonizingly short of the electoral votes needed to win.
"I shuddered all through 2000," said Rep. Ellen Tauscher of
Contra Costa County. "I was constantly talking to Democrats and
Independents who were voting for me but were turned off by
Tauscher recalled the early 1980s when "we were the party of
tax-and-spend liberals. . . . We finally got it right with Bill
Clinton, and we can't go back."
Agreeing with her was Clinton's transportation secretary,
Rodney Slater. "The point of this meeting was to get past the
populism question," he said. "We were in danger of slipping back
to pre-1992, and that has to be checked."
The most surprising attack on Gore's rhetoric came at the
beginning of the meeting from Connecticut Sen. Joseph
Lieberman, who was Gore's vice presidential running mate in
The "people vs. the powerful" theme, he told reporters,
"ultimately made it more difficult for us to gain the support of
some of the middle-class independent voters who don't see
America as us vs. them."
The sniping at Gore was not accidental from DLC adherents, who
are determined that the party's candidate in 2004 not hew to a
liberal line. But it annoyed Gore partisans who thought it
ignored the former vice president's victory in the popular vote.
"They're putting forward a theory, but they don't have the facts
to support that theory," said Jano Cabrera, a Gore spokesman.
"His message of the 2000 campaign garnered more votes than
any other Democratic presidential candidate in our entire
Cabrera said Gore, who was in Manhattan just a few blocks away,
stayed away from the DLC meeting because of "a scheduling
conflict" and was not snubbing the group he helped found.
But, particularly with many of the other would-be candidates
giving workmanlike but not especially stirring speeches, Gore
didn't have to be here to overshadow the others.
"His presence dominates every Democratic gathering. That's just
a reality," said former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, the
Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Pennsylvania.
"There is a great feeling among ordinary Democratic voters that
Al Gore won the election and it was stolen from him. That feeling
is particularly strong among African-Americans and Latinos," he
Another Democrat, who asked not to be named, said Gore's
absence was a reflection of the strength he brings to the 2004
race. "He's head and shoulders above this field, and it doesn't
make sense for him to be at every cattle call."
He joked that Gore was the "800-pound gorilla" in the race
before all the criticism here of his populist rhetoric. "Now, after
that, he's the 900-pound gorilla. It just emphasized how much
stronger he is than the others."
The other candidates believe the field is more wide open than
"We're in the process now of sorting through where the party
intends to be and who will be the spokesperson," said Kerry, who
left no doubt that he will not cede the populist label to Gore. "I'm
not going to be second to anybody in my desire to fight for the
The first test of the candidates will come in the Iowa caucuses in
January 2004, and Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said Gore
starts the campaign with enormous advantages.
"But the caucuses are not in anybody's pocket," he cautioned,
particularly with House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt
strong in the farm belt. "That's why you have these meetings now
and why the candidates are already coming to Iowa," he said.
"They're trying to get some exposure. Plant the flag. It'll be here
before you know it."