The centrist-leaning Democratic Leadership Council said yesterday that Al Gore lost the 2000 presidential election because he ran as “a big-government liberal” whose class-warfare rhetoric turned off new-economy swing voters.
In a bitter broadside attack on the party’s left wing, which threatens to reignite the intraparty ideological wars that divided Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s, DLC leaders said Mr. Gore made a mistake when he turned his back on the more centrist, coalition-building themes Bill Clinton used and turned instead to a divisive “us-versus-them” strategy that backfired.
In a DLC-sponsored panel discussion, “Why Gore Lost and What’s Next For Democrats,” the New Democrat group released the results of a voter survey taken by Mr. Clinton’s pollster, Mark Penn, which underscored its complaints about the party’s leftward lurch in last year’s campaign.
“The vice president failed to build on President Clinton’s winning formula of fiscal responsibility and support for a smaller, activist government,” Mr. Penn said in his polling report.
“Consequently, Gore was vulnerable to attacks as an old-style, big-government liberal like [Massachusetts Gov.] Michael Dukakis the very image that brought down Dukakis in his 1988 race against President Bush’s father,” Mr. Penn said.
“Voters saw Gore really to the left of the Democratic Party and they saw Bush as more toward the center,” he said. “Gore represented the old liberal philosophy, the old Democratic message.”
“The central impression that Al Gore left the voters was that while he would protect government programs, a vote for him would mean a return to the era of big government,” Mr. Penn said. His poll found that 60 percent saw Mr. Gore as the candidate “for big government,” compared with 24 percent who said that about Mr. Bush.
DLC President Al From said Mr. Gore fell into a time warp that failed to recognize how the electorate has changed, becoming more suburban, more educated, more affluent, more politically centrist in its politics, and more wired into the Internet, high-tech, entrepreneurial economy.
Mr. Penn said his survey showed that these voters “went to Mr. Bush almost by default.”
“Gore talked to an Industrial Age America and not to the Information Age America,” Mr. From said.
“The sharp class differences of the Industrial Age are becoming less distinct as more and more Americans move into the middle-and upper-middle classes,” Mr. From said. The old New Deal coalition “cannot be put back together again,” he added.
“The Gore campaign often looked and sounded like a throwback to the doomed Democratic campaigns of the 1980s, replete with vintage class-warfare themes and narrowly tailored appeals to constituency groups,” said Will Marshall, who heads the DLC’s policy-research arm.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, a leader in the New Democrat coalition in the House, said that if the Democratic Party “comes out in the next election and says vote for the Democrats because they will give you more government, we will lose.”
“We have to offer them a different solution. We need to talk more about the role that the private sector plays,” Mr. Smith said.
In an analysis of the party’s problems in the DLC’s magazine, “Blueprint,” Mr. Smith said voters were “concerned about high taxes, a lack of fiscal responsibility by government, government programs that produce dependence instead of personal responsibility, and regulations that show no concern for how they affect the ability of business to create good jobs and a strong economy.”
“Nowhere in the national Democratic message were any of these issues addressed. The people will not put Democrats back in power, no matter how badly the Republicans perform, until these issues are addressed,” he said.
Two liberal members of the panel, who were invited to critique the DLC’s assessment and begin a “dialogue” in the party, disagreed with the DLC’s criticism of the Gore campaign.
“I’m not convinced that Al Gore lost,” said Steve Rosenthal, the political director of the AFL-CIO. “Gore got more raw votes than any Democrat has done.
“Is running against government the key to success for Democrats? We don’t think so,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “There is no evidence that Gore’s populist message hurt us in this election.”
Ruy Teixeira, a public-policy analyst at the Century Foundation, said Mr. Gore’s leftward shift did not bother him. In fact, he agreed with it.
“The idea that Gore ran too far to the left, maybe; but the Democratic Party has an image of being more to the left. The Democratic Party is the party of the ‘30s and the party of the ‘60s,” he said.
But DLC leaders sharply rejected that view, saying that a majority of the electorate no longer bought into big-government solutions.
“We must make the case for activist government, but we must make clear that case does not mean big, expensive and intrusive government,” said Bill Galston, a DLC veteran who teaches at the University of Maryland.