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Jewish World Review June 15, 2000 /12 Sivan, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Engine trouble: AlGore's sputtering campaign -- WHAT IS IT with Al Gore and his sputtering presidential campaign?

Will he bring his craft out of it, or is this the beginning of a long tailspin?

Somewhere inside that programmed presidential candidate, one has the feeling, there used to be a nice guy, even a real person.

But he's spent eight years as Bill Clinton's stand-in. He's clearly learned a lot, and he wasn't dumb to begin with. By now he's mastered all the clinton clauses, the pat responses, how to memorize and regurgitate position papers, and emerged as ... a Clinton without the charm. Which leaves only the calculation showing.

You can almost hear the man ticking, like a wind-up presidential candidate. There is something unreal about his set speeches and something even more unreal about his Informal Moments. Maybe it's the earth tones.

Ever notice that when an ordinary citizen has his picture taken with the vice president, it's as if Ordinary Citizen were posing with a cardboard cut-out?

Maybe it's the way Mr. Gore addresses the nation -- as if we were all hard of hearing. Or as if he were one of those American tourists abroad who believes these dumb foreigners will understand him if just speaks English more slow-ly and LOUD-LY.

There is something removed from ordinary experience about this vice president, this barefoot boy from Tennessee raised in a Washington penthouse. He lays the Common Touch on with a little silver trowel.

The vice president also seems removed in time. While he claims that his Republican rival, George W. Bush, is stuck back in the Cold War, the vice president sounds stuck in the pre-Reagan Age of Detente, when the object was a hair-trigger co-existence rather than peace. The emphasis was on arms control rather than eliminating the need for an arms race at all. It's a lot safer world now that there is no longer a Soviet Union.

Governor Bush has come out in favor of America's taking the lead in foreign affairs once again, if necessary on our own. It's a wonder how quickly the world will follow, once the United States shows initiative. See the record of the Reagan Years. Or the Gulf War during the Bush presidency.

The Republican candidate makes a strong case for a revitalized American foreign policy -- one that is based on actions, rather than words. And he has a point, or rather several points: -- Why give Russia, formerly the Soviet Union, a veto over our plans for a strategic defense system, even as rogue states like Iran, Iraq and North Korea develop their nuclear potential? An effective defense against this growing threat shouldn't be kept on hold any longer. Indeed, the Russians should be invited to join us in creating a defensive shield against the crazies of the world. Which is what Ronald Reagan proposed when he first unveiled his Strategic Defense Initiative, which is still being dismissed as Star Wars. Even as the threat it would counter grows.

-- America's defenses need maintaining, rather than delegating to the United Nations, with its less than assuring record at keeping the peace. Why agree to an international ban on nuclear testing if such tests are necessary to keep the American deterrent convincing?

-- And why wait to reduce our nuclear arsenal if many of those nukes are surplus, and dangerous surplus at that? Just so we can make the rubble bounce? It is the Republican candidate in this presidential campaign who has suggested cutting the country's nuclear stockpile unilaterally -- to the "lowest possible number consistent with our national security.'' Why ask the world's permission to do the sensible thing? Why not seize the initiative?

In statecraft, as in any art, or science, the breakthroughs are made by leaders who see past the present disorder to discern the possibility of a deeper order of affairs.

In the face of his opponent's proposals, the vice president mainly dithers. He's so good at explaining the status quo, he seems to be defending it. Anything beyond it seems beyond him. He seems afraid of offending powers, like Communist China, that will be offended at anything the United States does short of total disarmament.

It's as if Al Gore were vice president in the paralyzed Carter administration -- a period when, faced with foreign threats, Washington mainly fretted. Fretting, it's turning out, is one of Al Gore's specialties. Listen to his rejoinder to Governor Bush's various initiatives in this debate about the shape of American defense in the coming years:

"An approach that combines serious unilateral reductions with an attempt to build a massive defensive system will create instability and thus undermine our security.''

What does that mean? And just what does Al Gore propose instead -- more temporizing as the world grows more dangerous? More drift instead of direction?

By now the vice president's response to every serious new initiative -- whether in defense policy, education, the Internal Revenue Code, or Social Security -- is to call it a Risky Scheme, and drift on.

There is still plenty of time for him to pull out of this little dive months before the election, but he doesn't seem to know just how. So he keeps on doing the same thing -- to the same little effect.

Poor Al aspires to lead a dynamic society, but offers mainly inertia. He seems out of touch with the dynamic, ever-changing country he proposes to lead. He has lost the initiative. Maybe his speeches lack clarity because his ideas do. His delivery remains uniformly forceful, maddeningly so, but he seems to have little to say -- no matter how slow-ly andclear-ly he mouths the words.

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©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate