Throughout history, only a handful of presidential campaigns have
caught fire by rallying the poor and down-trodden against the rich
and powerful. Even then, such populist appeals resounded only in the
darkest economic hours.
Yet today, amid the day-glo glory of the brightest economy in US
history, Al Gore is brandishing a new type of populism - a mellowed-
out version that's targeted more at the middle class than the poor
and is slim on plans for radical change.
It's a calculated risk, one intended in part to portray
Republican challenger George W. Bush as aloof and elitist by
comparison. The target audience: disillusioned independents and
people of any political stripe who feel they work too hard for what
Perhaps surprisingly, given the brightness of the times, there
are strains of public opinion that suggest the Democratic nominee's
message may resonate.
*There's outright jealousy of the rich. In a culture saturated
with Lotto jackpots, Regis millionaires, and dotcom billionaires,
class envy is bubbling.
*There's the growing rich-poor gap - and even the many middle-
classers who say they're financially wobbly.
*As Republican straight-talker John McCain proved, even in times
of plenty, there's room for outrage at powerful interests.
"People say they're happy, but they could be happier," says New
Hampshire pollster Dick Bennett. "They say they're working harder
and longer - and that there are other people who make all the money
but don't have to work at all." Besides, he adds, in boom times
there's just more whining: "When the economy is doing well, they
have the luxury of complaining."
Whatever the reason, Mr. Gore seems to be gaining ground with
this approach. His post-convention bump in the polls is holding, so
far. Surveys in Michigan, Minnesota, and New Jersey, where he had
been trailing Mr. Bush, show him ahead or even. He's boosted his
once-skinny lead in California.
The Republicans, for their part, are taking steady aim at some of
Gore's populist themes. Right after the Democratic convention, Mr.
Bush characterized his rival's speech as divisive. And the GOP's new
$7 million round of TV commercials - which start running in key
states today - takes aim at one of Gore's most trusty populist
applause lines, a promise to provide prescription drugs for seniors
in the face of pharmaceutical-industry opposition.
Still, 2000 seems an odd time to invoke the populist traditions.
It was during a decade-long farm crisis in the late 1800s that the
famously flamboyant William Jennings Bryan championed "toilers
everywhere," including pitchfork-wielding farmers. He won the
Democratic nomination - and lost the presidential race - three