Could the real Al please stand up

I joked a couple of weeks ago about how much we all wept when the Republicans were so hypocritically lovey-dovey at their convention in Philadelphia. But you joke about American politics at your peril; ironies are all too likely to come true. Flash forward a fortnight, cross the country to the Staples Center in LA, and delegates really were in tears when President Bill Clinton began his choreographed, lonely, valedictory walk to the rostrum at the 43rd Democratic convention - to tell us triumphantly that the US now has its lowest unemployment for 30 years, the least child poverty for 20 years, and that welfare rolls have been slashed by half.

"This is as good as it gets," wept a man in a red, blue and white hat on the convention floor. Exactly. Clinton put on a performance that could be rivalled only by Ronald Reagan for its contrived sentimentality, but that delegate unwittingly put his finger on the problems now facing Al Gore. If the party faithful see Clinton as unassailable, how will those middle-ground voters view Gore? I am writing this before Gore himself speaks on Thursday evening (17 August) and have no doubts that my predictions - that, by the weekend, he and Dubbya will stand about equal in the polls and that the media will pronounce themselves astonished by Gore's hitherto undiscovered oratorical skills - will come true.

But if Gore does not manage to pull firmly ahead by Labor Day, in just a fortnight's time, then he and the Democrats will be in what Boy George's dad calls "deep doo-doo".

First, the reasons why - and then how he could yet pull it off. The trouble for Gore is that he is basically insecure, so keen to please that he is constantly reinventing himself with different personas. There are so many Al Gores, both as politician and man, that none has yet connected itself to the country; I suspect that even he is not entirely sure which is the real one. He can be charming, witty and playful in private - but also wooden and supercilious, which is how he so often comes over in public.

The truth is that the American people fear that their current vice-president is just a little - well, bonkers. That is why, over the summer, Dubbya and the Republicans have managed to pull the rug out from under his feet so effectively.

Looked at dispassionately, Gore should walk this election: Clinton's superlatives are justifiable, in that the country is not (for once) involved in any major military conflagration, and is also still enjoying an unprecedented economic boom. "My fellow Americans, are we better off today than we were eight years ago?" Clinton asked, cleverly twisting Ronald Reagan's famous line.

Gore is experienced, Dubbya isn't. Yet, simply because Dubbya manages to come over as a more normal and likeable guy than Gore, the summer's momentum has been with Boy George. And Gore has found himself falling into the Republican trap by furiously trying to distance himself from the Bill'n'Monica fiasco - something even the dimmest voter knows has nothing to do with clean-living Al.

But the pivotal figure between now and polling day, I suspect, will still turn out to be Clinton himself. I keep coming back to the Oedipal aspects of Boy George, who is so determined to vanquish one of his father's vanquishers of 1992. And here we return to Reagan, graciously bestowing his blessing on his faithful, but then colourless, vice-president, George Bush Sr, in 1988. Reagan then not only delivered a blinder of a speech in his valediction at the Republican convention, but with that wonderful mock humiliation offered himself as a "foot soldier" to help Bush win (although they actually despised each other). He did, too, travelling 25,000 miles in the effort.

Having fallen for Dubbya's propaganda, though, the Gore camp cannot now make up its mind whether Clinton is a liability or a trump card. It has acquiesced to the Republican agenda that Monica is an issue in this presidential campaign, and so a caught-in-the-headlights look returns to it whenever the subject of Clinton comes up.

In his love-in speech on 14 August - self-love, that is - Clinton was eloquent on how he took office in 1993, having inherited ten million unemployed from George Bush Sr. It is material that can yet sink Boy George. Reagan increasingly became Bush Sr's attack dog in the final stages of the 1988 campaign, and Clinton could now do the same for Gore.

But when, in his speech, Clinton sought to praise Gore ("a profoundly good man"), the passion just wasn't there. Conventional wisdom is that Clinton is too egotistical to let Gore have the limelight, but, as usual, that is wrong. The real reason for his equivocation is that he keeps getting mixed signals from the Gore camp. In fact, Clinton (54 years old on 19 August) desperately wants to deliver the White House to Gore. This isn't because there is any love lost between them, but because he is obsessed with his historic legacy. He also wants to deliver Congress to the Democrats for the same reason, and a New York Senate seat to Hillary, to whom he owes a great deal.

Between now and polling day in November, Clinton can pick fights with the Republicans in Congress over the budget and education, for example - depicting Boy George and his party as irresponsible extremists once again. He could even manufacture a new crisis over some hapless foreign ogre such as Saddam Hussein, letting loose a few cruise missiles, and perhaps even finding some pretext for putting Vice-President Gore in charge. He could yet do for Gore what Reagan did for Bush Sr.

But, first, Gore will have to decide which of the many Al Gores he really is.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 21 August 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - What are we doing to our children?