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7/29/2005

Gore redux?

There's a left-blogosphere mini-swarm around the idea of an Al Gore presidential candidacy in 2008. Atrios, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and Marshall Wittman all express enthusiasm.

I have very mixed feelings about the prospect of nominating Gore in '08. I certainly don't agree with some of Ezra's reasoning:
Gore, if anything, starts in a better position than Hillary. Already defined as a credible candidate, there's nothing Republicans can do that'll make him look unfit to lead (the country, indeed, already voted for him once). If he can keep his recent speaking style, boring won't apply, at least not so much. His credibility with the left-wing of the party is massive and real. Unlike Hillary, who inspires a fair amount of distrust, Gore's endorsement of Dean and his alliance with MoveOn have turned the ultimate establishment candidate into something of a left-wing insurgent. That should make him a fierce online fundraiser, with small donor rolls that'll dwarf even Dean's, a particularly important strength since that great sucking sound you've been hearing is Hillary hoovering all the early money.
The claims in bold (emphasis mine) strike me as particularly problematic. I don't know how "the left-wing of the party" is being defined here, but what's clear is that Gore is no left-winger. He's sold out progressives on a whole host of issues, including trade, sanctions, 'welfare reform', and, yes, the environment. (Gore talks a good eco-game, but the Gore reality has never matched the Gore rhetoric.) It's true that Gore's post-2001 actions have improved his standing with the left, but as far as convincing progressives that he is one of us, it's anything but a done deal. I'm definitely open to being persuaded, though, and I would be thrilled to see Gore continue with this leftward drift.

And it puzzles me why Klein would think that "there's nothing Republicans can do that'll make him look unfit to lead." We know that the GOP's willingness to run smear campaigns knows no bounds, and we also know (or should) that no candidate is going to be entirely immune to their mudslinging. For some reason, many Democrats seem to be on a quixotic quest to find The Candidate Whom Republicans Cannot Criticize. Such a candidate does not exist; the Democrats could run the Virgin Mary and in a matter of months the Republicans would have a significant portion of the electorate convinced that she was actually the Whore of Babylon.

That said, I think there's something to be said for nominating a candidate who has already run in a general election. There's something of a taboo against doing this, and a loss in a presidential election is seen as the end of one's political career. Though candidates who don't get past the primaries are often given a second chance - Reagan, Bush I, and Gore all ran failed campaigns prior to being nominated - those who win the nomination and then lose in the Fall become instant nonentities. (This may have something to do with the fact that in the first half of the 20th century, every time a general election loser was re-nominated, he lost again (Bryan, Dewey, Stevenson); only Nixon was able to run again successfully.)

Of course, Gore is different, since he didn't really lose in 2000. But besides that, I think that nominating someone who's already run once is something that Democrats should strongly consider. The advantage of this strategy is that before we've seen a candidate compete in a general election, we know very little about their strengths and weaknesses. Few would have predicted that the GOP would tar Gore as a "fibber" based on made-up quotes, and what we thought was Kerry's primary strength, his military service, ended up being neutralized or even turned into a disadvantage.

For whatever reason, establishing a narrative around a candidate or an issue is something that Republicans tend to be very good at and Democrats tend to be very bad at - e.g., Kerry the war hero becomes Kerry the terrorist lover (though they have had some recent successes, most notably with Social Security). What's nice about Gore or Kerry is that the narrative is already established. We know what works and what doesn't, and we can figure out how to emphasize the good and downplay the bad, as opposed to what we think is the good and the bad. For instance, Gore thought he would be hurt by associating himself with Clinton; we now know that this wasn't worth worrying about, and that a bigger problem was that Gore was seen an out of touch, eggheaded weirdo. And we now know that Kerry's military service isn't going to turn 'security' into a winning issue for us, and that Kerry erred in focusing on foreign policy as opposed to the more favorable ground of domestic and economic issues.

Are Gore and Kerry perfect? No. But there is no perfect candidate (not even Bill Clinton, despite what the DLC would have you think), and you don't need one to win; Bush proved that. You just need to have a good handle on how your candidate is perceived, and that's what Democrats haven't had lately. George W. Bush's advisors know what their candidate is, and they know what he isn't. They don't bother trying to turn him into an eloquent speaker or a policy wonk; they ignore what he isn't good at and go with what he is good at. Gore and Kerry have their faults, but at least we know precisely what those faults are, and how they will play out over the course of a campaign.

Of course, every campaign is different, and not every lesson from '04 can be applied to '08. But for now it doesn't seem as if the next election will be radically different; I have to imagine that the GOP will adopt more or less the same strategies (what else do they have?). So come primary season, we'd do well to keep in mind the particular advantages that come from having already run an unsuccessful campaign.


(Cross-posted at Liberal Avenger.)

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