PRISM Magazine On-Line  -  January 2000
Campaign 2000
Silicon Valley's Advisory Role

By Kenneth T. Walsh

Kenneth T WalshVice President Al Gore has a well-founded reputation as a techno-nerd.

He not only understands science and technology policy, ranging from the space program to the information superhighway, but he particularly enjoys discussing the intricacies of the cyberworld with anyone who will listen. Suddenly, he is not alone. And even if the other presidential contenders can't match Gore's expertise, at least they seem to finally realize that science and technology, led by computers and the Internet, will play an increasingly vital role in the economy and America's future.

Yet the candidates are only part of the story. Just as important are the teams of advisors who are shaping the candidates' thinking and, depending on the outcome of the 2000 election, could be fashioning the national agenda in the next administration.

The vice president's team of high-tech gurus calls itself "Gore-Tech," and is composed mostly of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs including venture capitalist John Doerr, who has hosted a Gore fund-raiser this year at his Northern California estate, and Marc Andreessen, who helped invent the Internet browser and co-founded Netscape. Both are billionaires who are influential among Silicon Valley's movers and shakers and high-tech entrepreneurs around the country.Illustration by John Ceballos

Gore has courted these high-tech leaders since the start of his vice presidency nearly seven years ago. In recent months, as his front-running Democratic presidential campaign has accelerated, he has met regularly with 12 to 15 of his core high-tech supporters in Northern California or at the White House. Sometimes the group expands to include scores of other high-tech leaders who are assessing Gore's views to determine if they should support him and give him campaign contributions. The private sessions are typical of cyberworld—casual and non-stratified. "There's no hierarchy, and no protocol about who can speak when," says Kim Polese, a software expert from Palo Alto. "That would get in the way."

Like most of their high-tech colleagues around the country, Gore-Tech members tend to be libertarian on social issues, taking a live-and-let-live approach to questions of lifestyle and morality, but they are conservative on economic issues such as regulation and taxes.

In recent years, the high-tech community has become increasingly concerned about government efforts to intervene in their business, especially on the hot topic of whether Internet commerce should be subject to taxation, which the high-tech gurus vigorously oppose. Another big concern was Proposition 211 in California, a ballot measure that would have made it easier for shareholders to sue companies and hold their directors financially responsible for losses—a prospect that scared high-tech executives who felt their volatile stocks would make them inviting targets in court. Doerr helped lead an effort that defeated the initiative in November 1996, and the campaign awakened many high-tech leaders to the need to stay politically active.

One of their latest concerns is the perceived threat of debilitating lawsuits over Y2K-related problems. In addition, the high-tech gurus want the federal government to allow more foreign nationals into the United States to work in the high-tech industry.

Other presidential contenders have belatedly recognized the need to cultivate experts in science and technology. Former Democratic Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey is parlaying the contacts he made while teaching at Stanford in 1997-98 to build support in neighboring Silicon Valley. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona is using the Senate Commerce Committee, which he chairs, to establish a beachhead in the high-tech world.

But the only candidate who appears truly competitve with Gore in the cyberworld so far is Texas Governor George W. Bush, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Bush has appointed his own high-tech advisory group, which is just as high-powered as Gore's. It includes Michael Dell of Austin, chief executive officer of Dell Computer Corp.; James Barksdale, also a co-founder of Netscape and now managing partner of the Barksdale Group, and John Chambers, president and CEO of Cisco, Inc.

In many ways, Dell is the archetype of the new, politically active high-tech leader. Not only is he a billionaire who wants to influence the process, he has gone a long way toward making himself part of Bush's inner circle. He started with an advantage as a Texan who openly admired his governor's less-government philosophy, and is now chairrnan of the GOP candidate's information technology advisory council. Dell even has been willing to increase his visibility by appearing publicly with Bush at campaign events.

Bush likes Dell's boldness and his pragmatic streak. One example came in 1993, when Dell scrapped an entire product line of laptops that had been under development for many months in order to update his machines to deal with increasingly stiff competition. It was a bold, hard-headed gamble but it paid off in a new line of notebook computers that became popular with consumers. "A lot of people make mistakes, not just in the computer business but in a lot of things, by using emotion when emotion just is not really going to help," he once said.

It was advice that could apply equally well to politics.


    Kenneth T. Walsh is the senior White House correspondent
    U.S. News & World Report.