Politics & Policy

Too Liberal to Win

Al Gore's big — and basic — problem.

In the final innings of the presidential contest, Al Gore’s got himself a big problem. It’s more important than whether or not to use Bill Clinton. Even more important than Gore’s personal identity crisis, as revealed in the three debates. Al Gore’s real problem is a very basic one. He’s too liberal to win.

While conventional media analysts keep telling us that Bush’s nice-guy image is what really carried him through the debates, the fact is the Texas governor has been punishing Gore for his liberal-spending, big-government plans. And the Bush punches have drawn blood.

Labeling Gore’s $2.5 trillion tax-credit-and-spend program as a return to LBJ’s Great Society ways, Bush has very cleverly stuck the vice president with the label of Mondale/Dukakis Old Democrat, which is well to the left of New Democrat Bill Clinton. Bush unveiled this boxing combination in the second debate, kept up with it during the third debate, and has sharpened his punches in the campaign days since.

And Dick Cheney has helped the Texan make the point stick. In his debate with Joe Lieberman, Cheney also used the $2.5 trillion spending number and added, “There’s still a month to go.” Lieberman had no response.

Of course, Gore has only himself to blame. If you run around the country bashing big businesses, you start sounding pretty liberal. After all, small businesses aspire to becoming big businesses, so there’s no comfort zone for the little guy. Gore’s class-warfare attack of no tax cuts for the top 1% of income earners sounds awfully liberal. And then, of course, there’s his constant litany of “I’m going to give you” free health care, free drug prescriptions, free college tuitions, free day care, free, free, free. Lots of free benefits at no cost. What a wonderful idea.

But taxpaying voters have heard all this before and don’t much like it. It really is Old Democrat tap. So it’s no surprise that Bush is now holding a solid lead in the most accurate polls.

In particular, the pollster who has best pegged the Gore-is-too-liberal problem for many months is Scott Rasmussen and his “Portrait of America” survey. His data show that two-thirds of likely voters regard themselves as moderate-to-somewhat conservative. This is the true political center in contemporary American politics. Al Gore, however, is way left of center. In Rasmussen’s most recent survey, 49% regard Gore as moderate-to-somewhat liberal. Only 38% see him in the new political center.

Interestingly, before the first debate, only 38% saw Gore as too liberal. But now nearly half of likely voters view him as too far to the left.

George Bush, on the other hand, is much closer to the new political center, with 65% of likely voters viewing him as moderate-to-somewhat conservative. That’s much closer to the right-of-center consensus than Gore.

Also from Rasmussen, government waste has been a big issue in voter’s minds, though not until recently has it surfaced politically. A full 71% say it is a very important issue, ranked second only overall to economic management. While Bush is also something of a spender, with roughly $850 billion in initiatives, Bush is winning the tax-cut issue with his broad-based, marginal-rate reduction plan. And voters believe that tax cutters are the real government limiters.

Lately, Al Gore has been backpedaling from his liberal populist business bashing and government spending. He’s now out on the campaign trail trying to persuade voters that he has been reinventing smaller government. But so far it’s not sticking. In part, this is because Bush is on the attack. Even though days go by where Gore neglects to bash the top 1% of taxpayers, and while he may be reading the polls accurately, he’s going to have a tough time reinventing his image in the next two weeks.

Much of the thinking behind Gore’s liberal message was aimed at the Ralph Nader group, as well as the traditional Democratic base of minorities and unions. Now, as Gore tries to squirm out from under the liberal label, he finds himself in a new pickle with the Nader crowd. The consumer advocate is showing strong numbers, polling 8% in Minnesota where the presidential race is a dead heat, and 7% in Washington State and Oregon where Bush has a slight lead.

Scott Rasmussen believes that of key states including Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, West Virginia and Tennessee, all will lean to Bush except Illinois. The Nader factor is hurting Gore.

Gore strategists have dispatched Gloria Steinem to go out there and bring the Nader vote back home to the Democratic party. But with all due respect to America’s First Feminist, her efforts are not likely to be sufficient. Al Gore is going to have to do this himself. But that means he’s going to have to figure out which political self is the real self. Is he too liberal or not? And the more he struggles with this, the more undecided voters are going to use the sniff test to decide for Bush. Presidential campaigns, especially in their closing moments, are the wrong times to solve an identity crisis.

Scott Rasmussen believes that it’s Bush’s race to lose right now. Over the past two weeks, the Texan has held a solid 6-percentage-point lead on a daily basis. What’s significant to me is that all year long Rasmussen has been the best leading indicator for the direction of polling results. Most recently, the Ed Goeas/Celinda Lake “Battleground 2000″ poll has turned to an 8-point lead for Bush. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Zogby move in the same direction. That’s been the pattern: “Portrait of America” first, then the other smart pollsters following in line.

Of course, just as the Mets punched out the Yankees last night, so could Al Gore figure out a way to defeat George Bush. But it won’t be easy. In our high-tech, investor-class ownership, entrepreneurial new economy, old-style liberalism is a loser. Political liberals are political losers. In the end, the outcome of this race may be just that simple.


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