What Does Al Gore Believe? Everyone knows he has brains. But does he have any convictions? He has been on both sides of almost every major issue. Where will he be in November?
(FORTUNE Magazine) – All right, already. We know that Al Gore has a problem with reinvention. Every time we turn around, he's somebody new. One day he's a slasher, the next day he's a softie. Sometimes he looks like Regis, other times like Mister Rogers. So what's wrong with that? After all, people do change and grow. And politicians change and grow--mostly change--more than the rest of us.
Here's what's wrong: Although Gore has been a national figure since he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, no one--not even Gore himself--can answer a fundamental question: Who is Al Gore? Even Democratic loyalists believe that's a problem in someone who aspires to command. Says one: "It looks like he lacks confidence and cojones." Both are absolute requisites for the job.
The flips and flops have made voters uneasy. Despite questions about the intellect and experience of Texas Governor George W. Bush, 65% of voters in a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll thought Bush was a strong leader. Only 48% said the same of the Veep. Gore's chameleon act has been excessive even by political standards. His staff-shuffling has been historic; he's onto his third management team in a year. But it's his personal vacillation that's most alarming.
The old Gore and the new Gore are so different they wouldn't even know--or like--each other. As a young Congressman, Gore took positions that pleased pro-lifers on abortion and delighted the National Rifle Association on gun control. Today he's as pro-choice and antigun as the most liberal lawmakers. During his initial Tennessee days, Gore appealed to his conservative home state by making critical statements about homosexuality. In 1981, Tennessee's Manchester Times quoted him saying, "I think it is wrong," and then adding, "I don't pretend to understand it, but it is not just another normal optional life style." In 1984, he said, according to the Nashville Tennessean, "I do not believe it is simply an acceptable alternative that society should affirm." Gore also said then that he opposed the Gay Bill of Rights and that he would not take campaign funds from gay groups.
Such opinions sound shocking given how strongly Gore backs gay rights now and how supportive homosexual organizations are of him. Informed of Gore's early comments, Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay-rights lobby, fully backed the Gore of today. "I have to put comments made in the '70s and '80s in perspective," she said. "Day in and day out, Gore is fighting for all Americans, including gay and lesbian Americans."
During the primaries, Gore eviscerated Bill Bradley for a health-care proposal that Gore said would all but bankrupt the government. But at a recent town meeting in New Jersey he praised Bradley for the plan, saying that it helped promote health care as an issue. Gore famously claimed to have invented the Internet, and he wears a Palm on his belt even while playing basketball. But he told Fox News Channel that he wasn't enough of a computer expert to know what happened to all those e-mails missing from his office.
The list goes on. He was against normalizing trade with China in 1992, and lately he has been (quietly) for it. In the 1980s he spoke glowingly of tobacco farming and took cigarette industry donations, but now he is a vigorous opponent of smoking and the tobacco industry. He once railed against a mandate for bilingual education (1981) and now embraces it. Only weeks ago he criticized as risky Bush's plan to allow some private investment of Social Security funds. But when neither economists nor voters agreed, Gore deemed the markets safe enough to offer his own plan, which would supplement the Social Security system with private investments.
It's also hard to tell whether Gore is a new Democrat or an old one. As Vice President, he championed welfare reform and shrinking the government payroll. But as a candidate he has proposed billions of dollars in new federal programs as part of his "progress and prosperity" tour.
Gore maintains that he hasn't changed his views as radically as it seems. On abortion, for example, he says that while he voted against government-funded abortions, he was not pro-life. He showed considerable steel as a Tennessee senator in 1990, when he was one of just a handful of Democrats who supported military intervention in Kuwait. And during the early months of the Clinton presidency, when other senior officials wavered over deficit reduction, the vice president forcefully and consistently supported it.
Still, the Gore profile can be confusing. He hints at why--possibly inadvertently--in a passage from his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance: "A developing child in a dysfunctional family searches his parent's face for signals that he is whole and all is right with the world; when he finds no such approval, he begins to feel that something is wrong inside. And because he doubts his worth and authenticity, he begins controlling his inner experience--smothering spontaneity, masking emotion, diverting creativity into robotic routine." Could this be our next President?