Populist Al


Al Gore's fighting for you–provided you're a member of a "working family." He's given up on the relatively flush SUV moms, at least for now. Drifting down the Mississippi, he's finding more traction, if not virtue, in stumping for "working families." He practically can't talk about anything else. As an article in Tuesday's New York Times notes, he mentioned them nine times in his acceptance speech last week at the Democratic National Convention.

The term "working families" is not perfect for Al. It excludes portions of the Democratic-base: orphaned students, for example. But it's pretty darn good. It has a useful nebulous quality: Who among us, after all, isn't a member of some family, even if it's just our national family? And we all work, in our own way. And Al is careful never to define the phrase too precisely: Definitions, after all, define, which means they draw lines, exclude, and categorize. Yet they are also inclusive, allowing people to feel a sense of belonging and camaraderie with others similarly situated. (The Democratic worldview is one that puts us all in boxes and then targets government goodies towards us. On his Web site, Al Gore has neatly arranged the American population into 28 special interests, notes a wonderful Business Week article).

Still, Gore came close to defining "working families" several times in his big speech, even if the definitions clashed. At one point, working families were "people trying to make house payments and car payments, working overtime to save for college and do right by their kids." With roughly 67 percent of Americans living in an owner-occupied home, that's a pretty large focus group. And one in three households contain children. Who among the heads of these households "aren't trying to do right by them"?

At other points, he spoke of middle- and low-income Americans, indicating that they might be the working families, even if they didn't have children and weren't married and, outside of Vermont, weren't even eligible for marriage. In 1998, according to the most recent census data, a middle-income household–those smack at the 50th percentile–earned $38,885. Low-income households, the average income of those Americans in the bottom 20 percent of income, earned $9,223.

Gore's vagueness when it comes to defining working families is at play in his other grand populist theme. Said Gore, staring straight through the teleprompter at America, "So often powerful forces and powerful interests stand in your way and the odds seemed stacked against you, even as you do what's right for you and your family." Money and power go together like small dogs and dog sweaters, so this is clearly a veiled slap at the rich. But then in the very next sentence, he addressed the rich and therefore powerful when he spoke warmly of "the people who pay the taxes, bear the burdens, and live the American dream."

Who exactly bears the tax burden? The people who Gore considers rich. The bottom 60 percent of taxpayers by income, according to the Congressional Budget Office, pay only 17 percent of total federal taxes, including Social Security and Medicare. The top 20 percent—families who make more than about $76,000 per year—bear 65 percent of the total federal tax burden. So who but the wealthy and recently immigrated are fully living the American dream?

But then this exposes the one weakness in Gore's "working families" refrain. If families work too hard–indeed, in some cases if both members work at all–they move from being part of the solution—from being recipients of targeted tax cuts from government—to part of the problem—people who pay income taxes. Many tax breaks phase out at quite low levels of income. Try graduating from college, living in an urban area, and taking advantage of the student-loan interest deduction, which cuts out at $40,000 for singles and $60,000 for married couples. Given what average college graduates make in their first jobs, if two newly minted B.A.s marry and both work, they're already making too much money.

Ironically, those most receptive to the "working families" message may be those who arouse Gore's ire because of their relative wealth. According to the New York Times, one person thrilled with Gore's "working families" message, is 48-year-old Lou Cook. She's married to a lawyer and has a family income of nearly $100,000. She still considers herself working class, which I don't begrudge her, since class in America is as much a cultural condition and state of mind as it is a material phenomenon. But making those kind of bucks, she's not likely to be on the receiving end of any of Gore's help, no matter how hard she and her family work. In fact, she's much more likely to be forced to pay extra for it.