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VEEP 45: The ‘New Democrat’

Bill Clinton Walking with Vice President Al Gore on the South Lawn, August 10, 1993.

Bill Clinton Walking with Vice President Al Gore on the South Lawn, August 10, 1993. Source: Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States William J. Clinton: 1993, Book II, Photographic Portfolio.

The office of the vice presidency might be the most understudied institution in American government, but vice presidents and potential running mates certainly receive their fair share of media attention (not to mention a new HBO comedy series, VEEP). In a series of posts, we look beyond the headlines focusing on the current VEEPstakes and dig into our archives at the Miller Center to examine the contributions of previous vice presidents. In this edition, we examine Albert A. Gore Jr., who, according to President Bill Clinton, had a greater substantive role than his predecessors and had “more influence than any Vice President. Ever.” Previous posts in this series include J. Danforth Quayle, Walter F. Mondale, and Richard Cheney.

Alan Abramowitz recently termed Bill Clinton’s selection of Al Gore a “reinforcing choice.” Both were Southern Baptist baby boomers and shared a centrist “New Democrat” outlook. However, Gore was the Washington insider with military experience (he spent six months in Vietnam as an Army journalist) and brought foreign and national security policy credentials to the 1992 ticket. Gore was one of ten Senators to split with the Democratic party and support a resolution in January 1991 authorizing President George H.W. Bush to pursue military action in the Persian Gulf after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Dick Cheney told the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program in March 2000 that the reason Gore was picked as Clinton’s running mate was that he had voted with the George H.W. Bush administration on Gulf War resolution. According to Cheney:

I always felt [former Georgia Senator] Sam [Nunn] made the decision [to vote against the Gulf War resolution] because he wanted to run for President in ’92. He didn’t think he could run for President if he was on the wrong side from the standpoint of the bulk of the Democratic Party on this issue. Therefore, he led the charge against and turned out it was wrong. Al Gore got to be Vice President because he voted with us on that issue. I don’t think [William J.] Clinton would have picked him in ’92 if he, Gore, had been one of the Democrats who’d voted against it. It had long-lasting ramifications, obviously. In the end, because of the quality of the debate, because we did prevail, because we were so successful with the ultimate operation, I think it really did a lot to boost public support, confidence.

Thus, Clinton’s choice of Gore was not to balance the ticket in any geographic or demographic sense, but rather in terms of experience and expertise. The choice reflects in a broader sense the general trend towards choosing a running mate who is compatible and competent to take over as president, but who will not outshine him. 

Gore sought the advice of Walter Mondale and drew upon the political science models of the vice presidency in developing his approach to the office. His approach was to be a general adviser to the president with little direct responsibility over specific programs, but Gore was called upon in particular for advice in foreign affairs. Gore negotiated the terms of his vice presidency with Clinton before they entered office. He requested weekly lunches with the president, an office close to the Oval Office, an invitation to most Oval Office meetings, and that the Vice President's chief of staff be made an assistant to the President as a way to integrate the two staffs.

In February 1994, the New York Times profiled Gore and asserted that after just one year in office, he had given the office of the vice presidency “its most consequential place in history.” In the same article, President Clinton commented that Gore “has a larger role substantively and more influence than any Vice President. Ever.” Clinton also said that Gore has a “very profound moral sense” and was “always on the side of encouraging me to do what I think is right, which I appreciate.”

Dick Morris, a political consultant and former adviser to President Clinton, argued that because Clinton and Gore established such a close working relationship, it allowed Gore to become one of the most powerful vice presidents in modern history. According to Morris:

There are very few relationships in politics closer than Bill Clinton's and Al Gore's. They like each other a lot, and they're very close to each other. And Clinton kind of feels that he has a wife and he has a vice president and everybody else is the hired help. That he really feels that Al Gore is his political partner, someone who came in and cast his lot with him and took a burgeoning political career and hinged it all on Clinton. And he kind of sees Gore as having a sense of entitlement in the administration.

He also sees Gore as an enormously competent person; I think he sees Gore as almost the only competent person around, and that he knows that he can give him anything to do and it'll happen, it'll happen well, it'll be done completely, it'll be done intelligently and loyally and confidentially.

In remarks at the Democratic National Convention on August 29, 1996, President Bill Clinton sincerely said of Gore:

So many have contributed to the record we have made for the American people, but one above all, my partner, my friend, and the best Vice President in our history, Al Gore.

Gore’s vice presidency was not without scandal, however. In a March 1997 exposé, Bob Woodward revealed that Gore had become known within the DNC as the administration’s “solicitor-in-chief.” The task of raising money for the 1996 campaign fell to Gore after Clinton refused to do so. Although it is not illegal for a vice president to solicit campaign contributions, Gore’s direct telephone solicitations were “apparently unprecedented for a vice president,” at least according to three of his predecessors - Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle. The scandal was quickly overshadowed, however, by revelation of Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Gore made two bids for the presidency and declined to run in 2004. In 1988, Gore made a run for the Democratic nomination, eventually losing to Michael Dukakis. In 2000, he successfully secured the Democratic nomination, but lost in a bitterly contested election that was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court. In the 2012 presidential campaign, the media has been apt to make disparaging comparisons between Mitt Romney’s campaign style and characteristics and Gore’s (Dana Millbank at the Washington Post called Romney a “political reincarnation of Al Gore”).

Since leaving public office, Al Gore has become a leading voice for action on climate change and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his efforts. There was speculation that Gore may become the Obama administration’s “climate czar,” but he has preferred instead to continue his efforts through the private sector. In 2011, Gore castigated President Obama on his environmental record.

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