Why is this race even close?

Because Al Gore, flawed but the best man for the job, is stuck with a fractured liberal base that won't forgive him for not being Bill Clinton.

Published November 6, 2000 7:01AM (EST)

Even with the news that George W. Bush was arrested for drunken driving 24 years ago and lied to cover it up, Al Gore continues to trail Bush in every national poll. Like the prizefighter he isn't, Bush seemed dazed Sunday but still stumbling confidently toward Tuesday, as undaunted by his superior opponent as ever.

Consider me an undecided voter, because for weeks I haven't been able to decide which of two contradictory assessments of Gore's campaign is true.

Analysis A goes something like: This race was Al Gore's to lose, and he's done his best to lose it, running an abominable campaign that was probably doomed from the start by his calculating political chameleon act and personal charmlessness. He's riding the longest economic boom in American history, in a decade when welfare and crime are way down; he's served with a two-term president who, though tainted by scandal, remains a popular leader, and in most opinion polls voters support his positions on abortion, Social Security, healthcare and spending the budget surplus. According to the Dow Jones industrial average (when it's up from July to October, the incumbent party wins the White House, and when it's down the insurgents triumph, in all but three elections since 1897), Gore should be scheduling guests in the Lincoln Bedroom already. Instead, thanks to his own fatal personal and political flaws, he's trailing in almost every poll and may well lose to a bumbling, drunken-driving frat boy who will inflict another mediocre Bush presidency on a country that deserves -- and would have voted for -- better, if only they'd been offered it.

Analysis B says: Gore never had a prayer, and the fact that he's still within shouting distance of Bush in the polls is astonishing. Travelgate, Filegate, Whitewater, impeachment, Buddhist Templegate and all the other campaign finance flaps -- whether you blame it on the left-wing chicanery of the Clinton-Gore administration or the vast right-wing conspiracy against them, it's been eight years of one scandal after another, and no one could survive it. Even the nation's prosperity works against Gore: With the economy apparently cruising on autopilot, why not vote for the sunny (pseudo) outsider, the masterful triangulator from Texas, the one who hides his unpopular positions on issues like abortion and gun control and HMOs and doesn't seem to want to do much of anything except let you keep more of your own money? Throw in a feisty third-party challenger on the left in Ralph Nader (whereas Clinton had the benefit of Ross Perot on his right), and it's a tribute to Gore's political tenacity that he even made this race interesting. It should have been a Bush blowout.

As the closest presidential race in modern political history approaches its dramatic ending, smart postmortems will be impossible until somebody's campaign is dead. What's most remarkable is the election's volatility, the unprecedented number of swing states -- 12 going into the last two days -- with their geo-targeted blocs of swing voters, their psychometrically tested microissues. There are so many ways for both Gore and Bush to win or lose -- which means there are likely to be an infinite number of reasonable explanations for why they did.

But the suspicion still persists that it's Gore's fault the race is this close, that he's trailing Bush in the final days. It's something about Al, his critics say, it's gotta be: his smarmy know-it-allness, the serial exaggerations, his hydra-headed campaign, those doomed efforts to be an earth-toned "alpha male," his unforgiveable failure to be President Clinton.

Lately that line is coming the loudest from Nader supporters, who reject the claim of liberal Gore backers that their third-party truculence could elect another President Bush. As Naderite Michael Moore puts it in an open letter to Gore: "Look, Al, you have screwed up -- big time. By now, you should have sent that smirking idiot back to Texas with a copy of 'Hooked on Phonics' in his hands. You should have wiped the floor with him during the three debates.

"But you didn't. And now your people are calling ME, asking ME to do the job YOU'VE failed to do! Jeez, I've got enough on my plate these days, between work and the holidays coming up and the leaves I should be raking -- and now I'm supposed to save YOU? Unbelievable!" Moore, of course, blames Gore's troubles on the vice president's neglecting left-wing voters and opening the door to a Nader challenge.

On Gore's right, though, a comparable blame-Al analysis comes from Andrew Sullivan, now writing TRB for the New Republic. "In this economy, with President Clinton's approval ratings still celestial and a rookie as an opponent, Gore should be a shoo-in. Instead the vice president is in his home state, grasping at tiny blips upwards in the polls." Sullivan's explanation, however, is very different from Moore's: "Gore's candidacy is simply too liberal for the country."

It's enough to make you feel sorry for Gore, and think more about Analysis B. In fact, Gore has always been the underdog in this race, for reasons that have far more to do with the fractured state of American politics in this new millennium than with the vice president's political or personal failings.

But first, let's state the obvious: Al Gore is a flawed candidate who has presided over a troubled campaign. For me, the indelible image from the Democratic National Convention wasn't Al kissing Tipper, it was a photo Tipper shared of her Halloween-loving husband (Is it the costumes he loves? The infinite changeability?) dressed up like Frankenstein. I cringed: The image of Gore as Frankenstein captured his blockheaded otherworldly essence, the way he sometimes looks like a guy who's been torn apart and stitched back together, unnaturally. It's the perfect image to conjure up his synthetic feel, his mutability, the air of alienation from himself that sometimes feels almost poignant. It looked like a ready-made Republican campaign poster. I was sure I'd see it again.

As it happened, nobody made much of the Frankenstein photo, but I saw it again every time I watched Gore lurch from issue to issue, debate to debate, trying to reinvent himself anew. The trouble with Gore is his failure to tell a convincing story about what's at stake in this election, from start to finish, to communicate a sense of calm conviction and unswerving values on core issues, the way he instead remakes himself when he's in trouble and, in his worst moments, looks stitched together like Frankenstein's monster, kind of sad and scary.

So it's tempting to say, "It's the likability, stupid," and blame Gore's troubles on Gore. Maybe the best assessment of Gore's personality problem comes from our own Jake Tapper, who sums it up in two words: "Dingell-Norwood." That's the HMO reform bill Gore wasted time trying to explain in the last debate, instead of hammering Bush hard for vetoing a patients bill of rights in Texas, and capitalizing on the fact that voters support Gore's approach on healthcare in most polls by connecting with the issue viscerally and emotionally.

Likewise, he's run a mediocre campaign, beset by squabbling leadership and an inability to stay on message. Gore was in trouble right away, trailing Bush substantially in most polls by the summer of 1999. Criticized for his K Street campaign digs and his Rose Garden-and-motorcades strategy, he moved his operations to Nashville, and hired former Richard Gephardt/Jesse Jackson operative Donna Brazile as campaign manager to complete the populist overhaul. But the slight bounce he got from moving to Nashville's Mainstream Drive was leveled out by his first big campaign blunder -- the revelation that he'd hired Naomi Wolf to coach him on being an alpha male -- and the early surge of Democratic primary challenger Bill Bradley. (Note to historians: Doesn't the media's hype of Bradley -- who was more Gore-like than Gore, stiff, self-righteous, remote -- look like journalistic malpractice, so clearly did it represent reporters' self-interest in an audience-boosting primary battle?)

On the other hand, the Bradley challenge made Gore a better fighter, and he closed the gap with Bush by the end of the primaries. Then his campaign tanked again, beset by internal squabbling. "We couldn't stay on message for a week," one aide told the New York Times in August. It still hasn't.

Yet some of the internal squabbling reflected the breadth of the coalition Gore was trying to assemble, and the trouble he'd have holding it together. Few campaigns would be able to meld Donna Brazile with K Street king Carter Eskew, strategist for tobacco companies, and the tarnished Tony Coelho. Gore richly deserved the taint he suffered by his association with Eskew and Coelho; the master fundraiser who dialed for dollars from his federal office has always had trouble wearing the populist mantle. It's been smoother sailing since Bill Daley took over, but the campaign's tactical troubles reflect deeper ideological schisms that have always made the Democratic base an unstable one.

It should be clear, for so many political reasons, that this race couldn't have been anything other than close -- unless it was a Bush landslide. The "Gore blew it" explanation underestimates both Bush's strengths as a politician and the media's flaws in dissecting the Texas governor's weaknesses and taking them seriously. It ignores the dynamic of American partisan politics, in which hard-liners in the exiled party typically shut up and support the candidate (left-wing Democrats in 1992, right-wing Republicans in 2000) while their counterparts in the ruling party peel off, vent their spleen and screw their erstwhile allies (right-wingers and Reform Party-minded Republicans in 1992, Naderite ex-Democrats in 2000).

Maybe most important, the "blame Al" analysis minimizes Clinton's singular, irreplaceable role in bridging the far reaches of the current Democratic Party coalition -- as well as his singular, destructive role in squandering the electoral and popular support his New Democrat coalition had garnered, his promiscuous embrace of way too many priorities in his first term (meaning no priorities at all), from healthcare reform to NAFTA to welfare reform, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal in his second.

The main gripes about the Gore campaign only serve to illustrate the impossibility of his predicament. Repeatedly he's been beset by completely contradictory critiques. Take the Clinton issue, for instance: The vice president has had to suffer the charge that he's distanced himself too much from Clinton, as well as too little.

The decision to separate himself from the president created two big problems for Gore. First, it's hard to claim credit for the Clinton-Gore legacy if you can't mention the Clinton part. Gore has sometimes seemed like a man in a witness protection program, unable to explain convincingly where he's been for the last eight years.

Second, it was impossible. It was because of Clinton's troubles that the Gore campaign began so early, in November 1998, with the manic hatreds and mixed messages of the midterm election. It was mostly judged a win for Democrats, who gained seats in an election where they expected to lose them, thanks to what was widely considered an impeachment backlash. But down in Texas Bush won a resounding reelection, with respectable portions of the black and Hispanic vote and the capacity to look like a uniter, not a divider, a convincing front-runner who would raise $40 million before the first primary vote was cast, from Republicans hungry to finish off Clinton by defeating his vice president.

Gore needed a strategy to inoculate himself from Clinton's misdeeds without casting him out altogether, and he never found one. In public, he and Bush have pretended impeachment never happened; behind the scenes Republican strategists and fundraisers use Clinton as red meat to make the faithful drool, while the Gore campaign has never figured out a way to turn on the pro-Clinton, anti-impeachment partisans the same way.

And yet, having exhorted the Gore campaign to let the big dog out and put Clinton on the trail before Nov. 7, I quickly remembered the old maxim: Be careful what you wish for. All of a sudden the big dog got out, and he's been jumping on the furniture with muddy paws and knocking over the breakables ever since. He hurt Gore with a petulant Esquire interview (though he claims he thought it was embargoed until after the election) in which he said Republicans should apologize for his impeachment (while posing for a leg-spreading cover photo), on the heels of the big, flattering Joe Klein au revoir in the New Yorker last month, which diminished Gore by comparison.

Clinton came to California Thursday and Friday to rally the Democratic base, but he got in trouble again by telling admirers who wanted a third Clinton term to vote for "the next best thing" and elect Al Gore. The flap made me regret, a little, my confident invocation of Clinton's political mastery. It reminded me that you can't have the Clinton charm without the Clinton narcissism. He couldn't win on this issue.

Likewise, he's been trashed for both ignoring his left and pandering to it. The growing Nader bandwagon is critical to understanding Gore's troubles and the larger problems of the Democratic coalition. It exposes the left at its self-deceiving, self-aggrandizing, self-immolating worst. Nader supporters imagine they're reaching out to the great American majority, nonvoters. Their crusade is based on the comforting but false premise that those who stay home on Election Day are waiting for an alternative sufficiently left-wing enough to motivate them, when all the research says nonvoters would vote much like the rest of us do -- if they cared. They also ignore evidence that leftward change in the United States is always incremental, that even apparent sea changes like the New Deal resulted from years of organizing -- not to mention the Depression -- and a willingness by activists to be the left wing of the possible, in Michael Harrington's famous formulation, rather than holier-than-thou fundamentalists.

The worst example of self-righteous fundamentalism comes from lefty blowhard Moore, whose open letter to Gore contains a nasty campaign's most vicious charge: that Gore is somehow responsible for the murder of 6-year-old Kayla Rolland in Flint, Mich., last year, because Clinton-Gore welfare reform drove the young killer's mother off welfare and into a job that wouldn't let her adequately care for her son. There's so much wrong with Moore's allegation, starting with the fact that it's both cruel and false. But it's a window into the Manichean lefty mind-set that turns people who disagree into evil enemies -- accessories to murder, even -- rather than simply people who disagree, which has doomed the left to irrelevance, except occasionally as spoilers, in American politics.

The notion that the Greens' getting 5 percent of the vote, and thus becoming eligible for federal matching funds, matters more than a Gore victory is also ludicrous. Look at the Reform Party, which got 19 percent of the vote behind crazy Ross Perot in 1992, and is currently pulling 1 percent in the polls, matching funds and all. If Nader succeeds, picture a Green Party convention in 2004 that's a political version of the "Star Wars" bar scene -- Moore and his ego in one corner; Tim and Susan in another, the Mumia-for-vice-president caucus, litmus-testing on issues from hemp to veganism. It'll make the fratricidal Reform Party Convention in Long Beach, Calif., this year look like a church social -- and destroy the development of a real progressive alternative in the United States for decades to come.

Left-wing Naderites fundamentally misunderstand American politics. In a parliamentary democracy, small parties can play a big role in government. In a winner-take-all system like ours, they can only hurt their closest ideological rivals. And many Greens are happy to. As Harold Meyerson notes in the L.A. Weekly, some Greens say they'll use their new strength to knock off left-leaning Democrats like Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold and Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, rather than take on the Bob Barrs and Tom DeLays of the world. Poor dumb Greens.

Of course, the notion that Gore's in trouble because he moved too far to the left is almost as silly as its opposite. It's no accident that Gore's best week in the polls came right after the Democratic Convention. He had moved to his right by selecting Sen. Joe Lieberman as vice president, a dedicated centrist with a reassuring pro-business voting record whose critique of Clinton helped inoculate Gore. Then he tacked left with a populist acceptance speech that ignited his base, briefly, as he left Los Angeles. He managed to stay atop the bucking Democratic bronco for one brief shining moment, perfectly poised.

Gore critics who say he's run too liberal a campaign ignore the popularity of the Democrats' positions on key issues like education, Social Security, abortion, gun control and even tax cuts. But they're right about one thing: He hasn't found a way to reassure voters that he knows how to preside over prosperity and solve social problems. If they're forced to choose, the vast majority will choose prosperity, and if Bush manages to make the case that tax cuts and privatized Social Security accounts are the way to do it, Gore's sunk. As John Judis wrote recently in the New Republic, "Democrats have to combine the old populist themes with the promise that they can manage the new economy better than their rivals. Gore is intellectually well-equipped to make this argument, but he and his campaign have failed to do so."

The irony of the "Gore's too far left" complaint, of course, is that the vice president is a more authentic centrist than Clinton. But Clinton's a much better politician. He placates left-wingers with gestures, with cultural ease and intimacy, even while his policies piss them off. Just last week Anna Deavere Smith told Interview magazine that Clinton greeted her with "How you doing, girl?" when she met him, and she gushed: "I wouldn't have thought to hear those words in the Oval Office."

He was the first black president, according to Toni Morrison, the first baby boomer, the first draft dodger, the first (admitted) pot smoker, even if he wouldn't admit he inhaled. Both left and right perceived an innate radicalism, born of his class roots and his cultural swagger, which thrilled the left and galvanized the right against him. And yet he somehow reassured the vast middle that he would fight for them. A party gets that kind of master politician at most once in a generation -- the Republicans had Reagan, the Democrats got Clinton -- and it's time to forgive Al Gore for not being one.

Gore suffers for following Clinton in so many ways. For one thing his flawed opponent, not Gore, has profited from impeachment fatigue and the media's weariness with and wariness of the so-called politics of personal destruction. In the wake of the Lewinsky mess there's a squeamishness about whether and when the personal is political, and it helps Bush, not the squeaky-clean, uxorious, admitted former pot smoker Gore.

It's translated into a reluctance to pounce on the stupidity issue -- is it really fair to ask if the Texas governor is dyslexic, dumb or just plain lazy? -- as well as Bush's self-described "young and irresponsible" years. The media feeding frenzy over the DUI revelation frankly strikes me as overcompensation. We've known the guy was a dangerous drunk for years; Bill Minutaglio's "First Son" featured a sauced W. driving his little brother Marvin home from a Christmas party in the early 1970s, then plowing into the neighbors' garbage cans and challenging his angry father to a fight "mano a mano." His drunken, angry confrontation with the Wall Street Journal's Al Hunt is journalistic legend.

Yes, the coverup of the 1976 arrest is worse than the crime and, for wary reporters, justifies the sudden interest in Bush's lost years (when his slogan apparently was "I'm a drunken driver, not a divider"). But those years were always interesting, and it's clear now that the media cut Bush way too much slack for refusing to directly answer questions about what he was hiding.

It's a little sad that if Gore wins Tuesday, it will likely be blamed on or credited to Bush's November DUI surprise. In the inelegant words of Bush's father, Gore should have kicked a little ass last summer, and this race never should have been this close. He is, so clearly, more qualified to be president than his opponent, who is truly the guy in the witness protection program, with his past scrubbed clean but his hold on his new identity still slippery and unconvincing.

But Gore's very qualification for the job no doubt turns off some voters, who don't believe the country needs an overachiever at the helm in a time of peace and plenty. Bush's nonchalance, his very ordinariness, reassure us that our good fortune is our own doing, and we don't need anybody as superior seeming as that goody-two-shoes Gore to fight our battles for us, anyway.

Meanwhile, the potential majority Democratic coalition is fragmented, with Nader nihilists at one end and the compassionate comfortable at the other -- Democratic-leaning voters who know the country could do better, especially for the disadvantaged, but don't want to risk much to get there. It's a little like Frankenstein's monster itself, big and powerful but ungainly and unpredictable, stitched together badly, a little scary. It will be scarier if Gore's potential supporters punish him for being as compromised and conflicted as they are.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Al Gore George W. Bush