Democrats need to face a hard fact: If the election was held tomorrow, Al Gore would lose in a vote of landslide proportions. The latest Battleground poll, a bipartisan survey released yesterday, shows Gore losing by 9 percentage points. A Los Angeles Times poll, released the same day, showed the same margin of Bush advantage. The bad news is that these polls were both taken after the Joseph Lieberman pick, and after Gore had begun to lock down his base.
The Battleground poll showed Gore winning 87 percent of registered Democrats, an increase in Democratic support of 14 points since the previous poll was taken two weeks ago. But the same poll showed that Bush has established a 17-point lead over Gore among "independents," who are crucial to the outcome of any presidential election.
More bad news lies in the fact that the Battleground poll is a poll of registered rather than likely voters. Motivation is a key Democratic problem this year. Among likely voters, the Los Angeles Times poll showed George W. Bush leading Gore by 12 percentage points in a four-way race. Moreover, stories have only begun to be written exploring the implications of the choice of a "right wing" Democrat to the No. 2 spot, and specifically its ability to depress enthusiasm and turnout among the Democrats' core left-wing constituencies.
There have been more than 200 polls taken since the end of the primaries and Bush has led in every one of them except five. Two of those five were ties, and all of them were taken in March. Since March the race has remained basically static with Bush decisively ahead. Barring a major screw-up by the Republican candidate and his campaign, can Gore change this? In my view he cannot.
Normally, the presidential race is more about character, values and judgment than so-called "issues." For one thing, the issues are complex and can be easily distorted, and the parties tend to move toward the middle, blurring distinctions. Nonetheless, Democrats are waiting for the "issues" stage of the campaign, which is supposedly yet to come. This is a sign of their desperation. This campaign has been dominated by issues questions thus far. The problem for Democrats is that the issues have not worked for them as they expected.
The reason is the way Republicans have conducted their campaigns. By embracing the "concern" issues of Social Security, education and healthcare, and by staging a convention that emphasized the values of compassion and inclusion, the Bush campaign and the Republican Congress have successfully neutralized the Democrats' traditional advantage in these areas and made a direct appeal to independents that will be hard to overcome.
The Republican nominee is an attractive candidate, and has demonstrated, over the course of his campaign, leadership qualities that the electorate has recognized (as registered in innumerable polls). To an electorate weary of scandal, Bush has pledged to "restore dignity and honor to the Oval Office." To an electorate fed up with partisan bickering, he has identified himself as a "uniter, not a divider" who will work with all political factions. His record in Texas, where he won 70 percent of the vote and the endorsement of most Democratic leaders and every statewide Democratic officeholder, is impressive evidence that he means what he says and can deliver on it as well.
By contrast, the Democrats' candidate, Al Gore, has squandered opportunities to show leadership and instead established the image of a man who is prone to the partisan and to the negative, unclear about his own identity, uncomfortable with the truth and a calculating political animal. The only thing Al Gore seems to have done right has been to show boldness in picking Lieberman as his running mate. Unfortunately, from his point of view, this hasn't produced the needed results in the polls, and in the long run may help to undo him.
What can Al Gore do? He doesn't really have much choice. He must attack the front-runner, and in the process convince voters that Bush is not the man he seems, and that they so far have consistently preferred. But in doing this, Gore will have to appear even more partisan and negative than he already has been, feeding precisely those apprehensions that have turned independent voters off.
Worse, he must move left (and right) at the same time. The Lieberman pick has only highlighted and exacerbated the weakness of Gore's appeal to the Democratic base. (It was no accident that in praising Gore at the convention, Clinton omitted his most significant political achievement -- defeating Ross Perot in a debate over NAFTA and helping the administration pass the Republican Congress' legislation on free trade.) In hindsight, Gore probably should have picked a vice presidential nominee with appeal to the left (Kerry or Gephardt), and then moved to the right himself. But he did not do this, and that means that he is the one who will have to move left in order to pacify and then energize his base, alienating the center in the process. This is the circle he cannot square between now and November.
Although character seems to be Gore's primary problem, it is unfair to see it entirely as a personal matter. For underlying and amplifying Gore's character problem is the character problem of the Democratic Party itself.
Ever since the McGovern campaign, the Democratic Party has been both in its heart and its organizational structure a party of the left. The McGovern reforms, for example, created the appalling quota system for convention delegates that ensures the party will overrepresent certain designated victim groups and, of course, the political left. Nothing could more perfectly encapsulate the party's reactionary attachment to the racial and political past than these quotas. They express an attachment to group identities, group politics and group rights that is strangely 19th century in its atmospherics, and that was roundly rejected by the American majority in the 1960s in the very cause of "civil rights" that party leftists never cease to invoke.
It is striking in this regard that Lieberman has been forced by party radicals to defend his support of a California initiative that outlaws government discrimination on the basis of race in order to win the imprimatur of the faithful.
For eight years, President Clinton was able to contain the problem posed by the Democratic Party's reactionary left by the sheer force of his mendacity and charm. He originally won the (misplaced) confidence of independents by a sharp attack on black racism and a public humiliation of Jesse Jackson, who at the time was the undisputed leader of this political faction. Once in office, he was able to humiliate family friend and African-American "civil rights" advocate Lani Guinier, and yet go on to win 90 percent support among African-Americans -- even being dubbed the "first black President" by Nobel Prize-winning author and leftist Toni Morrison.
But Al Gore doesn't come near having the personal skills to accomplish such unlikely feats. So Gore is in a box. If he moves left, he will alienate the crucial center. If he moves right, he will alienate the crucial base. His opponent, on the other hand, has already energized his base not least by showing them politically how to be invulnerable to the demonizing smears of their "liberal" antagonists. Better, he has captured the political center in the same way, by showing that Republicans are compassionate human beings, too.
All Bush has to do now to win is keep Al Gore in that box -- and he'll no doubt have Gore's help as he endeavors to do that.