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Jewish World Review July 27, 1999 /14 Av 5759

Morton Kondracke

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Gore leads Bush
in policy proposals -- VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE badly trails Texas Gov. George W. Bush in money and poll ratings, but he is miles ahead in policy proposals.

Whereas Bush -- and also Gore's Democratic rival, former Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.) -- won't start detailing their policy positions until the fall, Gore already has unleashed an avalanche of them.

He's received precious little political credit for it, but since announcing his candidacy in June, Gore has given major speeches on crime, economic innovation, education, the environment, family life and "sustainable growth" -- all chock full of new ideas.

Among other things, Gore wants to overhaul the nation's criminal justice system to ensure swifter trials, provide preschool to every child, create tax-free savings accounts for college tuition and job training and double the nation's investment in information-technology and cancer research.

He also wants to increase jail time for committing a violent crime in front of a child, amend the Constitution to enhance the rights of crime victims, expand the tax credit for corporate research and development, encourage poor people to build their own homes, redevelop decrepit urban sites to ease suburban sprawl and help families spend more time together.

Gore's ideas come so thick and fast, in fact, that they need to be crystallized into a simpler overall message that sticks in the public's mind. This is one job awaiting top campaign strategist Carter Eskew when he comes aboard Aug. 1.

But Gore aides say that the blizzard of policy initiatives unleashed so far has helped demonstrate that Gore does not intend to be a mere extension of the Clinton administration, but "his own man."

Most of Gore's ideas do not depart markedly from Clinton's center-left orientation, but many go beyond Clinton policy, as in Gore's advocacy of nationwide state handgun licensing and reporting of all gun sales to a state agency.

Some of Gore's proposals also challenge Democratic Party orthodoxy, such as teacher competency testing, involvement of faith-based institutions in social programs and balancing the budget "every year."

On the other hand, Gore sticks close to Clinton and the Democratic base in opposing privatizing Social Security or "forcing" Medicare recipients into health maintenance organizations.

Bradley implies that Gore is putting out only small ideas whereas his will be big, but Gore describes his platform in sweeping terms. Some of that may be hype, but some isn't.

Gore is promising "a new wave of fundamental change for the nation, starting with revolutionary improvements in our public schools."

He also says that he is offering "the most effective and comprehensive anti-crime strategy that our nation has seen." And, he claims, "the crisis in the American family knows no boundary of class or race," but he promises to solve the crisis.

In fact, his crime package is pretty sweeping -- from the hiring of thousands of new prosecutors and public defenders to the creation of "gang-free zones" with curfews for specific gang members and a ban on gang-related clothing.

He is also proposing "a national crusade to dry up drug demand, hold up drugs at the border and break up the drug rings that are spreading poison on our streets."

On the other hand, his proposals for improving family life -- beyond extended family leave -- are a little vague. If a Republican said, "We must make family life work in America," it would sound compassionate. When a Democrat says it, you begin to fear social engineering.

Gore's policy deluge surely deserves more credit and press attention than it's been getting. As one aide pointed out, internecine quarrels inside the campaign staff and friction with Clinton have received front-page coverage, while even the launch of his candidacy got played inside.

All that's a function, of course, of the fact that Gore chronically trails Bush by 15 to 18 points in the polls. Other factors are Bradley's surprisingly strong challenge in the "money primary" and the media's eagerness for at least one close race to cover in 2000 -- even though Gore is leading Bradley by 30 to 40 points in most polls.

On the other hand, Gore does seem to be presiding over an unruly family, with his media adviser, Bob Squier, openly bashing Eskew. Plus there's Gore's campaign manager, Tony Coelho, inspiring -- and then denying -- stories that he seeks the departure of Gore's chief of staff, Ron Klain, who apparently is leaving.

Though he advocates lean government, Gore does seem to have a bloated, expensive campaign staff with no fewer than four top pollsters. "Think of it as a Dream Team," says one aide.

Aides claim that staff gossip may obsess Washington, but that voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and other primary states could care less and are listening to Gore's ideas, nodding and keeping him well ahead of Bradley.

But Gore does need the ministrations of someone like Eskew, who can help him frame a "vision" sentence -- or maybe a bumper sticker -- that will put all his programs in context.

What he needs is a rhetorical lever or policy framework like Bush's "compassionate conservatism" that forces the media to stop writing about what's wrong with Gore and begin asking Bradley and Bush: What's your alternative?

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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