In a major New York Times story yesterday, Richard Berke and Janet Elder report that Al Gore is trailing Governor George W. Bush “across the demographic spectrum.” Most dismaying for Gore is that his gangrenous campaign is not getting enough blood from three vital constituencies which gave Bill Clinton his victory in 1996: Catholics, independents, and Northeasterners. There is almost no conceivable scenario which could produce a Gore victory without all three of these blocs on his side. The problem for these voters is that while they tend to agree more with Gore “on the issues,” they dismiss him because he lacks “leadership” qualities. By a factor of 2 to 1, voters predict that the Vice President will lose in November.
The voters know something the pundits have overlooked. Ever since the Carvillean mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid,” was so thoroughly internalized by Republicans and Democrats alike, it’s not shocking that the news of Bush’s lead has startled so many in Washington. For example, Tim Russert was floored by the numbers on NBC’s Meet the Press last weekend. The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol agreed, saying Bush’s lead is counterintuitive. “Any political scientist given these objective facts would say Gore should be ahead and Gore will win,” Kristol said, echoing the common view that economics determines elections.
But there’s another way to look at the situation, one that does not bode well for Gore. Despite all of the institutional advantages of their office, vice presidents don’t get elected unless their boss dies before the election. Since 1804 — when veep and presidential candidates started running on the same ticket — only two sitting VPs have been elected president without the help of their boss dying first: Martin Van Buren and George Bush. Richard Nixon is the only former vice president to be elected president without the benefit of first being an unelected president, through the death or resignation of his boss. This explains why Teddy Roosevelt called the office a steppingstone to oblivion, and John Nance Garner said things about it not printable on a family website.
There’s good reason for this. The vice president is the court eunuch of the American presidential court. As John McCain likes to point out, the vice president has only two obligations: Inquire daily into the health of the president, and attend the funerals of Third World dictators. A vice president must support his boss at all times — even when everybody knows the boss is wrong. Vice presidents rarely get credit for anything really important, but they often have to take the brunt of public criticism. This forces even the most manly men into playing a role that most everybody recognizes as wimpy (remember the “wimp factor” that almost toppled Bush, despite Dukakis’s ride on a tank in a funny hat?). In other words, most people realize that if Al Gore and Bill Clinton were prison cellmates, Gore would be picking up Bill’s laundry; giving him the strawberry shortcake off his cafeteria tray, and singing Vera Lynn tunes on skit night.
HOW TO BREAK THE MOLD? The question is how did Van Buren and Bush the elder manage to win in the first place? Well, Van Buren was the hand-picked successor to Andrew Jackson, who very possibly could have won a third term himself. The Jacksonian age was one of national pride and economic expansion. The Democrats passed a Jackson-approved platform intended to “perfect the work which he had so gloriously begun.” Van Buren won because the country did indeed want a third Jackson term. He also benefited from two other relevant factors: He was only a one-term Vice President, having replaced Calhoun for Jackson’s reelection campaign. And secondly, Jackson’s opponents in the various half-assed parties had conceived a bizarre strategy of dividing the popular vote in order to throw the election into the House. As long as Van Buren could keep that from happening, he was assured victory.
While that’s hardly a replicable model for Gore, George Bush’s 1988 victory seems far more relevant. Indeed, Berke and Elder write in the Times that “Mr. Gore may be heartened that vice presidents are often overshadowed by the presidents they serve until they can distinguish themselves on a national stage….In fact, at this time 12 years ago, Mr. Bush’s father, then the vice president, trailed Michael Dukakis by 10 points, but went on to a lopsided victory in November.” There’s little doubt that Gore’s staffers are making this point everywhere they can. They have admitted that their playbook is largely a rip-off of Bush’s 1988 campaign. This would make sense, considering that Bush is the only two-term VP to be elected straight to the Oval Office ever, let alone during the modern media age.
Even so, the model holds problems for Gore. First and foremost, Dukakis, translated from the Greek, means “worst conceivable candidate not found with a live boy or a dead girl in his hotel room.” (Yes, it is amazing how the Greeks can say so much in so few words.) Bush’s opponent was terrible in so many ways that — after twelve years — the Library of Congress has only managed to catalogue “Dukakis Presidential Campaign Foul-ups, A thru L.” Dukakis was a left-wing ideologue from Boston who smugly boasted of his Carteresque “competence” without displaying a fraction of Carter’s charm. Governor Dukakis tried to opt Massachusetts out of the national-security infrastructure — something Harvard-bred, liberal, Northeastern ethnics should probably avoid if they want to win in the South. He let Bush seize the mantles of environmentalism, responsibility, patriotism, economic optimism, and all around good guy. This left Dukakis with the arrogant-professor-who-gave-you-an-undeserved-C-minus-in-college mantle, along with the Greek vote.
All of this took a lot of hard work at a lot of flag factories, but Bush did it. Another essential requirement was an electorate which wanted a third Reagan term. But most of all Bush was able to erase the stain of the vice presidency in a way that may not be replicable for Gore. Al Gore’s personality itself is vice-presidential. He’s an attack dog who has the sort of arrogance we’ve come to expect from people who have important-sounding jobs but not a lot of work to do. Meanwhile, George W. Bush — whatever his faults — could not possibly be more different from Michael Dukakis.
WHAT ABOUT CLINTON’S THIRD TERM? There are those who argue that voters want a third Clinton term. The evidence is mixed at best: The only voters who seem to be saying so in any numbers are dedicated Democratic activists who’d vote for a horny goat if he were on the Democratic ticket — and in fact did, twice. Princeton’s Sean Wilentz, a first-order apologist for Clinton, has been the leading proponent of the idea that “Clinton fatigue” is a myth because Clinton’s job-approval numbers are high. There are two problems with that idea. First, whatever his job-approval numbers were when Wilentz hatched his idea, they’re now the lowest they’ve been in his second term. And second, Gore’s approval numbers have been inexplicably tied to Clinton’s personal approval numbers, rather than his job approval. Who would want their fate determined by what people think of Bill Clinton the man? This personal-approval link was not the case with Bush the elder twelve years ago.
Gore hopes to make the election about “staying the course,” which is why he talks so often about Bush’s “risky schemes” and “secret plans.” George W. — or his brain trust — knows that if he can seem like a pleasant alternative to the current president and his pants, without offering much by way of radical change, voters will simply vote against Gore out of a general fatigue with this administration, its vice president, and their cumulative scandals.
There are, of course, other “keys” and rules to presidential elections, most of them tied to the economy. And one of them may be more pertinent than the VP curse. But Bush clearly seems to be aware of the fact that as long as he offers a refreshing house-cleaning and seems like his own man, the game’s in the bag.