The year was 1996. David Spade and Chris Farley had won “Best Duo” at the MTV Movie awards for their trenchant and touching work in Tommy Boy. A band called Smashing Pumpkins was tearing up the charts for no discernable reason. And, a nice man named Bob Dole was proving incapable of persuading Americans to vote for him. Throughout the year, Dole aides said “wait until the spring,” “wait until the voters pay attention,” “wait until Memorial Day,” “wait until the convention,” “wait until November,” and then finally, “wait for my checks to clear.”
For almost everybody paying attention to that campaign — I think there were 412 of us nationally — it was clear that Bob Dole was going to lose. He never got ahead in the polls, his (pre-Lewinsky) exclamations of “Where’s the outrage!?” alas, sounded like calls for a ref who would never blow a whistle. They were sad times indeed.
But now they seem more than a little familiar. Al Gore is doing terribly. His partisans keep saying wait until X, Y, and Z. Actually they said wait until A, B, and C but we’ve already run through much of the alphabet without much improvement in Gore’s prospects. He was a “practical idealist” who then promised to “stay and fight” for, among other things, “progress and prosperity” and against “risky schemes” of every stripe. He’s taken the low, medium, and high roads. He associated himself with Clinton and then he distanced himself from him and now he appears to be associating again. He’s worn earth tones and he’s donned pinstripes. He’s tried to talk black, using words like “dis” and DWB (“driving while black,” or, in Gore’s case, “dull white boob”). He’s bragged about his experience in Vietnam and he’s explained to people that he will support strengthening fathers. He promised to fix parking, attack Big Oil, save Social Security, fight “casino economics,” and place bets on Wall Street himself. In short, he has changed everything about himself that was changeable. What’s left is the real Gore, and the real Gore is the problem.
On December 14, 1998, I wrote in this space, “… one thing I am willing to bet right now is that Al Gore will not be elected President of the United States.” I still believe that for the same reasons (my case is better spelled out in a more recent column from last month but it’s the same argument).
The point for today is that we don’t have to wait until Labor Day or until after the conventions. Gore is walking wounded now. He may pop up and dip down in the polls over the next few months, but barring Bush being caught doing weird things with small rodents, Gore’s chances will never improve much.
But that won’t stop Democrats and liberal writers from coming up with new theories about what Gore needs to do. In fact it will only encourage it. Dying patients always provoke the most opinions from doctors, for obvious reasons.
For example, in the current issue of The New Republic Jonathan Chait and Michelle Cottle offer two opposing strategies for Gore. Chait argues that Gore should go back to going negative. Cottle argues that Gore is “boring like a fox.”
I agree with Chait on the general proposition that there’s nothing inherently wrong with negative campaigning. As Chait suggests, when Gore is “positive” he lies vastly more about himself than when he goes negative on Bush. Besides, this is not a bake sale; there’s nothing wrong with big nasty arguments. We need more of them. Consensus is the first sign that someone’s coming for your wallet — or for you.
But Chait misses a key problem for Gore. He can dish it out but he can’t take it. I think that is the real secret to why people can’t stand to watch Gore go negative; it’s because he’s a crybaby. He can accuse Bill Bradley of eating poor children or George Bush of sacrificing puppies to Mephistopheles, but if one of them says “Al, your numbers are wrong,” he denounces his opponent for making a vicious personal attack. He whines like an accountant with a lisp stuck in a maximum-security prison. He reminds me of the kid on the school bus who always had unnaturally rosy cheeks because everyone felt the need to slap him.
Nevertheless, the mere fact that the editors of The New Republic (a.k.a. the Gore Leadership Council) feel it necessary to hold a symposium in which they offer two entirely conflicting modes of advice is a bad sign for Gore. Nobody who likes Gore really knows what he can do to make things better.
Then, of course, there is James Fallows in the current issue of the Atlantic, which has a great cover picture of Gore with a vampire fang. Fallows argues — endlessly — that Gore is the greatest debater in America and that he may actually be able to turn things around in a debate. Fallows is certainly right that Gore is technically an extremely good gut-fighter in a debate when he is the Vice President or when he is fighting on an issue like NAFTA against Ross Perot. But vice-presidential debating skills are largely irrelevant. They are good for only two things. First, veeps attack the other guys in ways that might seem beneath the presidential candidate. And second, veeps suck up to the boss.
Now that Gore is the candidate these skills are useless because there’s nobody to suck up to and his attack mode is simply not presidential. Sure he beat Bradley, but Bradley was a wet suit in the debates and Democratic primary voters respect viciousness in a way general-election voters do not.
At the top of the ticket Gore is the closest approximation to a visual toothache ever produced by American politics. People don’t like him. They won’t like him. And unless absolutely forced to, Americans don’t vote for people they don’t like.
Jewish World Review is currently running my syndicated column on a trial basis. What will make it a permanent basis is if people like you decide to start going there in droves to read it. Send them a note, send them some flowers, hell send them a dead fish (maybe a nice piece of lox) in a bulletproof vest — they’ll get the message.
And — as if you needed any additional encouragement — if you go now you can see what I looked like when I had my goatee, or Vandyke, or whatever you call it.