The Mind of Al Gore 7

In a commencement address at MIT two years ago, Gore had used a different analogy. “The first computers,” he explained to the graduates, “relied on a central processing unit surrounded by a field of memory. To find the right answer to a particular problem, the C.RU. would send out to the memory to retrieve data, then bring it to the center for processing.” This was inefficient. Then came the breakthrough known as “distributive intelligence,” which distrib¬utes the processing function throughout the memory field, “in the form of smaller, separate processors, each co-located with the mem¬ory it processes.” Now, when you ask a computer to perform a task, “all of the processors begin to work simultaneously and process a small quantity of information. Then all of the separate parts of the answer are sent simultaneously to the center where they are assem¬bled. One trip. Less time and heat.” (Just like Congress?)
It would not be too much to say that Gore is in love with this metaphor. He believes that it explains the superiority of constitu¬tional democracies over centralized state systems, and the superior¬ity of free markets over command-control economies. It is a market theory of society: if all the little decisions are processed correctly, an invisible hand will guide the progress of the whole. You could sum it up as classical liberal holism: what is optimal for one must be opti¬mal for all. This conception of decision-making is one reason the vice president is such a fan of the Internet: it democratizes the flow of information.
Who are the enemies of such an approach? I asked, still eager, in my retrograde way, to uncover conflict. “Anything that interrupts the smooth operations of that organization,” Gore answered. “The level of cynicism that we talked about earlier is an enemy of the country’s ability to succeed because it disrupts the flow of ideas and pollutes the debate over genuine difference into a contest of demonization aimed at those who hold particular views.” As Madi-son had argued, he said, “differences of mere opinion” can be a cause of social disintegration, when “people focus only on the dif¬ferences and demonize those who disagree with them.”
Gore stood up. We had barely scratched the surface, he said; he regretted not having more time—though we had talked uninter¬rupted for an hour. Back outside, in the reception area, members of the Congressional Black Caucus were filing out of the Oval Office; a group of Russians was filing in, all looking desperately in need of a cigarette. I left the White House grounds through the Northwest Gate, with its now unforgettable associations—this is where Mon¬ica Lewinsky threw a fit in front of the Secret Service after learning that the Big Creep was entertaining Eleanor Mondale in the Oval Office, that two-timer!—and suddenly the administration’s prob¬lems began to seem a lot less metaphysical.

Although Gore has yoked himself to Clinton—“I have been by his side every step of the way,” he proudly told Richard Berke, of the New York Times, last December—he has by far the more conserva¬tive instincts. In 1988, when the cold war was still on, he ran as the most hawkish of the Democratic candidates, and it is worth remem-bering that the Willie Horton issue, which came to symbolize the debacle of the Dukakis presidential campaign, was first broached, during the primaries, by Gore. (Gore raised the question of Massa¬chusetts’s prison furlough policy; the Bush campaign racialized the issue. The despicable campaigns run by Lee Atwater and James Baker in 1988 and by Baker again in 1992, when the Bush campaign tried to make it seem that Clinton was a traitor because he had gone to Moscow as a student in 1969, arguably bear a lot more responsi¬bility for the degradation of national politics than Watergate. Nixon, after all, was punished.)
In the administration, Gore has been alert to prevent Clinton from veering too far to the left. The Clinton presidency began by impersonating the Democratic Party it was supposed to have dis¬placed. It proposed policies (gays in the military, a fiscal stimulus package) and programs (health care reform) that are associated with a big and activist government, and the party was clobbered in the 1994 midterm elections. After the deluge, Gore reportedly was in-strumental in getting Clinton back on the New Democrat platform of smaller, more decentralized, more entrepreneurial government— Government Lite. And in the summer of 1996, when the Republi¬can Congress passed welfare reform legislation, with the notion that Clinton, under pressure from his electoral base, would veto it and hand Bob Dole a potentially winning issue in the presidential cam¬paign, Gore is said to have urged Clinton to sign the bill. He did, and robbed Dole of every issue save one that he could hardly bring himself to raise—character.
But then Gore seems to have made a mistake. When it became clear, in the final weeks, that Dole could not win, Clinton had a choice of continuing to campaign for the national ticket, in the hope of winning a majority of the popular vote, or of campaigning instead for Democrats in local House races, in the hope of regaining the House. He decided to push up his own numbers. Clinton and Gore fell short of 50 percent in the popular vote, in part because the news of the Indonesian connection (remember that one?) dominated the news just before the election; and the Democrats fell short of retak¬ing the House. As a consequence, Clinton faces impeachment proceedings in a House controlled by the rival party. According to Elizabeth Drew’s book on the 1996 election, Whatever It Takes, Gore was one of the people behind the decision not to campaign in the House races. He apparently did not want his most likely primary ri¬val in 2000, Dick Gephardt, to become the Speaker (a motive not entirely consistent with the ambition to restore the Democratic Party to dominance). The Democrats have another shot at the House this fall, but unless Clinton can perform political jujitsu on his opponents (which is not inconceivable; Clinton is a man who is lucky in his enemies), it is probably too late.
A Republican Congress will be able to drag out impeachment hearings well into next year—a year that was to have been Gore’s chance to perform in more of the spotlight. There is also, of course, the impending investigation into the Democrats’ fund-raising prac¬tices in the 1996 campaign, which will almost certainly look at Gore’s role. And then there is the personality issue. Clinton’s elec¬toral success is due in part to his centrist politics, but in part to sheer salesmanship. Whenever he can get his face in front of the camera, his approval ratings go up. Gore does not have this particu¬lar magic. His charisma emission levels are unusually low.

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