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May 20, 2006

My Al Gore Worries

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

Lots of my friends are very excited about the possibility of a Gore 2008 candidacy. (I remember when the announcement hit Daily Kos that Gore had hired back one of his consultants from 2000. The Kossacks were so excited that Gore might be running again that they actually forgot to complain about consultants who lose presidential campaigns.)  I feel the need to express some of my worries, on the theme of whether Gore could actually win the general election. So if you’re a big Gore fan, here are some pitches for you to swing at:  

First: What image of Gore will be distributed by the national media in 2008? For all the disintermediation talk, in the 2008 general election, the vast majority of voters are going to be getting their information through the mainstream media. The media, including its nonpartisan elements, was particularly brutal to him in 2000. Now, the new Gore’s image is clearly going to be different from the old Gore’s, which is good. But what is it going to be?

I’m not optimistic that this turns out well. We live in an age where flip-flops damn you to public-image hell, and where Tim Russert and his clones obsess over inconsistencies real and perceived in a candidate’s record. It’s unclear to me how the new Gore explains what happened to the old Gore in a way that fits together and looks appealing. Somewhere in the darkness, clawed hands are sewing a flip-flopper costume and a crazy liberal costume, and cold eyes are looking in from the shadows to see which one will fit him better. Tell me how Al doesn’t end up getting stuffed into either of these loser suits. Because if that's how most swing voters see him, he loses the election.   

Second: Does Al Gore help out with any swing voter constituencies, or win us any states? If Mark Warner could get Tim Kaine to win Virginia, he should be able to carry the state himself, and perhaps have some broader Southern appeal. Bill Richardson’s people say he can help with the Hispanic vote. Evan Bayh supposedly puts Indiana into play. A certain son of a mill worker has excellent favorability numbers even beyond our party, has the Southern appeal, and was born into the white working class (who are as susceptible to identity politics as anybody else, except that people don’t call it identity politics). Which extra votes does Al Gore win us?

Gore’s strongest support comes from folks in the netroots – generally, savvy and critical consumers of media who see through right-wing spin and the dumber things said by mainstream pundits. The speech on the decline of the media that he gave back in October was awesome, and made bloggers (who’ve been paying attention to the phenomena that he described) love him. The trouble is that lots of Americans, including the mostly-disengaged swing voters whose voting decisions are based on the caricatures the media feeds them, aren’t savvy about this stuff and wouldn’t see it if it was pointed out to them, especially with a defensive media and the Republican Party trying to point them away from it. A country that was smart enough to see through the bullshit and vote for Al Gore wouldn’t have the problems that Gore is so good at diagnosing.

Now, let me present the way that Gore could win a general election. He’d remind people of how awesome things were in the Clinton years, and say that voting for him was the path out of the Bush disaster and back into the awesomeness.  This message would have a fairly wide appeal.  (And by 2008, disgust with the GOP might be so intense that any Democrat could win.) Things would be somewhat better if Hillary weren’t Gore’s main potential rival for the 2008 nomination – lots of Bill stumping for Al would be nice, but I don’t know how enthusiastic Bill will be after a hard-hitting Al vs. Hillary primary. And I'm not sure that Al has everything it takes to hold the Clinton voters together -- a high Bubba quotient will get a lot of people not to tune you out from the start, and Gore doesn't have that.

There’s one part of the online Gore lovefest I don’t dissent from – I think that he’d make an excellent president. But I’m having a hard time seeing how we get there. Recent polls show Gore in pretty bad shape. In the latest head-to-head poll I’ve seen, he loses to McCain by 17, same as Kerry, while Hillary trails by 10 and Edwards by 6. His more recent net favorability numbers are below Hillary and Kerry, and way below Edwards.  These numbers aren’t written in stone – his ratings are probably a lot more malleable than Hillary’s, for instance. But I need to hear the story of how they’re going to get fixed, considering all the challenges Gore faces in selling himself to people who rely entirely on media-processed news. So let me request a little more explaining before we continue with the lovefesting.

May 20, 2006 in Election 2008 | Permalink


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The primaries are still a year and a half away. Any polling is fantastically preliminary at this point.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | May 20, 2006 6:12:36 AM

Something that you didn't mention but I think is an important asset for Gore is that he has more than enough experience on foreign policy issues to neatly offset anything the Republicans can come up with (and he can blow them all away with being correct about Iraq.)

And I do think you're being pessimistic about Gore vs the media. His passionate response to the ills of our times, be they global warming or wartime excesses, could be seen as genuine and "authentic". Gore is no-longer a consultant-riddled stiff, and he has passion in abundance (only Mike Huckabee and Edwards have similar passionate causes.)

And the polls will start to swither when Gore actually makes a substantive move, I suspect.

Gore/Edwards 08 YaY!

Posted by: Hustveit | May 20, 2006 6:54:23 AM

To expand more on this point: while Gore has excellent name recognition, nobody who isn't a news junkie has been paying much attention to him for the last five and a half years. Most of the American public hasn't seen the "new" Gore, and probably won't until he starts running again - if he runs again. They aren't reading the MoveOn speeches and downloading his every TV appearance like we are. This might be another weakness in the disintermediation argument, but it doesn't say anything about Gore's electability. Right now Gore's image with most of the electorate is his 2000 image - and if we're operating on the assumption that he's improved on that image since then, then presumably he'd poll better once the people being polled are actually aware of that improvement.

By the way, I realize you really, really, really want me to like Edwards, but you've still yet to do that "Edwards on terrorism and foreign policy" post I keep asking you to do every time you bring him up. The last time he ran for president, he ran away from terrorism while Republicans were busy making it the central issue of the campaign. Until he has some stance on foreign policy - not just on the war he started yesterday but feels bad about today, but on the wars he'd start or stop tomorrow - he's not worth considering.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | May 20, 2006 6:58:29 AM

The most recent post on my blog opposes strategic thinking of the kind you're engaging in here. I would like to add another point which I didn't mention in that post; the issues that matter to us are certainly not going to get talked about unless we talk about them. Blaming the media for focusing on trivia may have a lot of truth to it, but it isn't going to help any. If we want people to pay attention to issues that really matter, we need to do our best to focus people's attention on those issues. And we won't look sincere when we do so if we're strategically supporting a candidate who's lukewarm on those issues. We need to support the candidate who really stands for what's important, and say as loudly and frequently as possible what's important and why we think our candidate is the best to handle those issues.

I have to say, of the major democratic figures of the moment, Gore looks like the best candidate to me. I'll keep supporting him until either he loses the primary or somebody else makes a convincing case that they have a better platform.

Posted by: Protagoras | May 20, 2006 8:00:02 AM

First: Often enough the media feel bad for now-diagnosed treatment of people, and are kinder to them the next time around. If you look at the gushing way they are treating the possibility now, you can see that happening to Gore. He'll start out more lightly treated by the media than anyone buy McCain (liked) and Hillary (historic).

Second: There's no such thing as a consistent politician. They're all flip-floppers. My Gawd, Clinton was the king of this. It only sticks if the public/media doesn't like the candidate to begin with. And the press, at least initially, will go easy on a Gore campaign.

Also, in a full primary, other people will be doing a lot of the work in attacking Hillary. People are going to be weirded out by a "Billary" presidency; how can you really discount the possibility that Bill will be a much more powerful figure than Hillary was in his presidency? And is that a good thing?

I'm much more worried that Gore will run a vanity campaign, and try to play nice the entire time. I wasn't crazy about the populism at the end, either. I don't want Adelai Stevenson.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | May 20, 2006 8:32:16 AM

Gore/Edwards 08 YaY!

Don't even joke about this. Not the Gore part - the "Edwards for Veep again" part. Whatever arguments might be made for an Edwards presidency, Edwards was a terrible running mate. The basic function of a running mate should be to attack the other side while letting the headliner look good; Edwards either couldn't or wouldn't tear into Bush and Cheney to the extent the campaign demanded, essentially running for vice-president the same way he ran for president in the primaries: mostly positive-if-fluffy populist rhetoric concerned with making himself look good. It's not simply a matter of matching up names we like; each side of the ticket has its role to play, and the next VP candidate needs to be able to fight.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | May 20, 2006 8:41:54 AM

I not sure, but there may be much power in a campaign based on the theme of "I've been to the wilderness and I've come back changed." That would resonate with Christians because it echoes some Biblical themes. It echoes with others who could see a man who's learned and changed. This requires the New Al Gore to truly be new. He needs to dispense with his handlers and be loose and candid. But I think it also has the benefit of being a true theme and not something made up for the election.

Posted by: pfc | May 20, 2006 8:43:30 AM

You're wise beyond your years Neil. I've meet Al Gore and spent the better part of a day with him in So IL many years ago when he was running for President. I like Al Gore. He could be my BFF, and he would make a very good Pres. But I just don't see what he wins that we lost last time. And the media will brutalize him. Their creeps and it's easy, so they will be all over it.

Posted by: Don | May 20, 2006 9:04:10 AM

Re: the media, I think that a comeback/second act narrative is probably one of the most powerful ones in our culture, and the media likes a compelling narrative much more than they care about any particular candidates. Gore's longtime pet issues- technology, the environment, the Social Security "lockbox," and to a lesser extent his government-streamlining efforts under Clinton-- all are much more in the forefront of voters' consciousness than they were in 2000. We tend to forget how completely trivial the campaign was in 2000... after several years of relative peace & prosperity, budget surpluses, sex scandals, etc., brush-clearing and heavy sighs during debates were actually treated as significant issues, but even the silliest, least-informed voters must understand there's a lot more at stake now.

I think Gore is also set to frame his transformation well. We all know the old lyric about freedom & nothing left to lose , and voters are (thanks to the GOP, mostly) well prepared to believe in the authenticity-enhancing potential of being outside of DC. Gore is already discussing his sister's death and his son's close call as being transformative, and the Supreme Court loss can fit into this model, although I think it would work better if he acknowledged that he's still a very fortunate man and that the previous trials/losses were even more soul-shattering.

As far as constituencies and swing states go, I understand the practical concerns, but hopefully we're moving away from that a bit, thanks to Dean. None of us know what the ground will look like in two years-- we do know that the Ohio GOP is imploding and that Jeb will be out of office, and that there will probably be more Dem governors and members of Congress by then. I live in TN, and don't think a Democrat will win here for quite some time; I don't fault Gore for not winning the state any more than I fault Edwards for not bringing NC in for Kerry.

Maybe this is all just wishful thinking on my part-- we really, really need a good president next time to start repairing the damage the current crew has done. Not only do international relationships need to be mended and the budget set on the road to recovery, but the government itself has to be reformed and set to rights after eight years of partisan witch hunts and the worst kinds of political hackery and corruption. I just don't see anyone other than Gore who would have even a snowball's chance in hell of accomplishing that, due to lack of relevant experience (Edwards & a host of others) or an inability to do anything other than play defense and try to soothe conservatives (Hillary!). It could be a pipe dream, but otherwise I honestly think it's going to take the rest of my lifespan to even come close to fixing things.

Posted by: latts | May 20, 2006 9:24:42 AM

Gore isn't my ideal candidate (although possibly my ideal President) under normal circumstances, but he does have some big positives for 2008:

1. He's essentially innoculated from the best campaign smear tactics. What makes most of the GOP smears effective is they hit hard in the short term, and aren't properly exposed until it's too late. They'll try again, but there's not much more fake dirt to dig up on Gore -- we've heard it all. And it's possible the media, when going through Gore's history, will actually correct some of the past smears.

2. As mention above, nostalgia for the Clinton years. The 2000 campaign really was a different era. Everything was running so smoothly, there was a general feeling that anybody could run the country, and that this was just a beauty pageant. Remember Ralph Nader's "not a dime's worth of difference" campaign? And how many people believed that?

3. The "What If?" factor, of course.

4. Energy and climate problems are growing stories in the media. It's very possible that they'll dominate the campaign in 2008.

Gore's low ratings have a lot to do with reflexive responses -- many people haven't heard or seen him in years, and just vaguely remember they're not supposed to like him.

Posted by: PapaJijo | May 20, 2006 9:27:37 AM

Most of the American public hasn't seen the "new" Gore...

I do know what you mean by this, but remember too, he was the lead-in to SNL just recently. We will defeat the radical glaciers!

I have never bought the "what votes do they bring?" argument because I have seen it fail spectacularly too many times. The votes that Gore could get, on top of the natural "Any Democrat, Please God!" folks, are people who right now are not really all that thrilled with anybody. Bush has been a disaster, not just because things have gone wrong, but as a person - he's soured people. But who else is there around that looks any better? Especially given the media filters. Imagine what the mood will be after another two whole years of Bush.

Anybody who can speak truth to people, and who can sound like they are speaking truth - make a personal connection - is going to be real attractive.

Of course, this is the two-edged sword that John McCain is counting on wielding - that he can just do the "sounds like truth" part and count on his media constituency to deflect any attacks.

If the journalists covering you buy your "sincerity act" (as they will knowingly describe it to their world-weary yet still hopeful deep down selves), you're aces. If they don't buy it, they will spend all their time tearing you down. I don't know which way they'd fall out this time around for Gore. Probably both ways, in series and parallel :)

I kinda wonder if this is the real decision point for Gore about running again. Does he think he has a way to get around that filter? Or would he be stuck inside whatever cartoon they decide to make up?

Posted by: tatere | May 20, 2006 11:04:55 AM

It seems to me a good barometer for seeing where Gore stands in the eyes of the media is in waiting for any blowback from the movie or his other acts recently. He's becoming more visible, and we've got enough time left before the primaries to really see how the media reacts to him, as well as how he reacts to the media. If he knows how to handle media attention, and if he maybe changes his team of consultants, he'll stand a much better chance of winning (again.)

At the same time, one of the reasons I currently lean towards Edwards is, as you said, his negatives are much lower than the other candidates, since (as stated before) he's not tied to any highly divisive issues (e.g. Vietnam, the Clintons.) As much as people opine for the good old days of impeachable BJs, poll numbers have indicated some resistance to go back to that group of people - which doesn't make much sense, unless you consider that this is the same electorate who can like Kerry's policies but vote for Bush anyway.

I'm also of the opinion that Edwards has much more potential for growth than Gore - in particular because of pet issues. Gore's environmentalism is popular with the electorate, but I don't really read is as the sort of thing that'll define the election. Mark my words, though - the 2008 will almost certainly be dictated by pocketbook issues. The growth of economic inequality as an issue in the United States has been growing steadily over the past several years (price gouging at the pump, Enron, Katrina, immigrant debate, health care) and shows no sign of slowing (see: coming shitstorm over the "donut hole" in Medicare".) In addition, it will continue to become more difficult for Republicans to shift the terms of debate to friendly ones - people are uncomfortable with trusting them on national security because of warrantless wiretaps, and the cloud of ethics scandals will not do them any favors in winning over already-cynical "values voters". (This is all, of course, contingent on the Democratic Party finding an appealing national security narrative.)

I definitely identify with your concerns, and I'm glad that we have two potentially great candidates for '08 (between Gore's policy brilliance and Edwards' political savvy.) In any case, we have a strong pool of candidates, and I hope the candidacy doesn't simply go to the one with the most money.

Posted by: Jon O. | May 20, 2006 11:42:12 AM

The discussion above seems to ignore the sizeable headstart Hillary has within the party across the country. And a huge pool of cash to get going on a national campaign - she has proved she can raise lots of money. Her centrism offends the progressive base, but the party hacks, media blowhards, and DLC Me-Too Republicans seem to love her abandonment of anything that hints of liberalism. And Dem. women luv her, a significant factor.

Can Gore or Edwards or Warner overcome her presumptive candidacy? Is their any doubt Hillary would attack Gore as too liberal and out of touch, adding to the media bias against outright progressive/liberal ideas?

All of the Dem. potential candidates suffer from the party's current image as weak on foreign policy, fighting terror, and keeping the country safe through a strong military and aggressive foreign adventures. Hillary has been working for several years to position herself as a hawk, and that record seems to have worked so far. Whether that is credible is another thing - as well as whether that what the country wants more foreign adventure.

Gore right now is my favorite potential candidate for the Dems, but he carries lots of baggage that doesn't help - with the major exceptions of the good economic record of the Clinton-Gore years. But Hillary will be selling Clintonism reborn again herself (with her own baggage of the Clinton health plan debacle.)

It will be interesting. My guess is that Gore won't run unless Hillary falters or decides not to run.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 20, 2006 12:40:07 PM

One further note for you, Neil:

If Gore does indeed run, the Nixon in '68 comparison will become the most overused cliche in the history of mankind. And for good reason. The parallels really are pretty eerie.

But it's worth noting that while Nixon between '60 and '68 suffered from unpopularity similar to what Gore suffers from today, but still won the election, he won with only 43% of the vote. Unless Tom Tancredo catches fire, Gore won't have the luxury that Nixon did of winning with a minority of the electorate.

Posted by: Petey | May 20, 2006 1:12:00 PM

Can Gore or Edwards or Warner overcome her presumptive candidacy?

Of course they can. Hillary is bound to be slammed from the left by Feingold. His clearest path is to stake out the Deanesque "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party" territory by contrasting himself with center-right Dem sellouts, and Clinton will be the biggest target. Her long support for the Iraq occupation, even if she tries to abandon it between now and then, will be a monstrous albatross around her neck, and as the frontrunner she'll be attacked by everyone else in the Democratic field. At the same time she'll be getting attacked as a castrating communist lesbian feminazi by right-wing media, which she'll deal with by vacillating even more.

There are really only two questions as far as a Hillary candidacy goes: (1) how much will her support on the left drop once liberal voters know her actual positions, and (2) how much can the sheer power of money and name recognition get a bland and charismaless candidate with nothing to actually recommend them for the office? I'm cynical enough to believe that #2 might be enough to seal the deal - that lots of very stupid people will see the Clinton name and just go goggle-eyed in the primaries - but polls and name recognition overwhelmingly favored Joe Lieberman for the nomination back in 2002, so it's good once in a while to remind ourselves that we don't know shit about how actual people will vote two years into the future.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | May 20, 2006 1:20:17 PM

"(Hillary's) centrism offends the progressive base, but the party hacks, media blowhards, and DLC Me-Too Republicans seem to love her abandonment of anything that hints of liberalism."

I guess the "progressive base" no longer includes African-Americans.

Of course it does, but you, like many folks online, use "progressive base" when you really mean "netroots", which is a very, very different group that shares very little in common with the actual base of the party.

The short way to phrase your statement would be as follows:

"Hillary's centrism offends the netroots."

The long version:

"Hillary's centrism offends a small, generally upscale, generally well educated, and politically active slice of the party."

Posted by: Petey | May 20, 2006 1:24:09 PM

If Gore does indeed run, the Nixon in '68 comparison will become the most overused cliche in the history of mankind. And for good reason. The parallels really are pretty eerie.

The historical analogy is the most beloved fallacy in American political writing, and year after year I keep desperately hoping people will learn to ignore it. Remember in 2004 when people were claiming that George Bush just had to lose the election because dammit, every incumbent with an approval rating that low had lost in modern history and hey, it just had to happen like that again? November came around and damn if it didn't just break history! Al Gore isn't Richard Nixon, George Bush isn't LBJ, 2008 isn't 1968, and history isn't something that mechanistically repeats itself at regular intervals with all the same details intact.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | May 20, 2006 1:28:25 PM

"but polls and name recognition overwhelmingly favored Joe Lieberman for the nomination back in 2002, so it's good once in a while to remind ourselves that we don't know shit about how actual people will vote two years into the future."

But, of course, it was blatantly obvious in late 2002 to anyone closely following the game that the '04 nominee would be either Kerry or Edwards. And that's exactly how it played out once the voters started voting.

Nominations are won and lost long before Iowa chimes in.

Posted by: Petey | May 20, 2006 1:29:37 PM

I guess the "progressive base" no longer includes African-Americans.

There's a whole bunch of African-Americans in Iowa and New Hampshire, aren't there?

Oh wait! No, no, there aren't! In fact, there are quite a few generally upscale, generally well educated, and politically active white people voting in those states! Hmmmmm... a quandary.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | May 20, 2006 1:31:17 PM

"But, of course, it was blatantly obvious in late 2002 to anyone closely following the game that the '04 nominee would be either Kerry or Edwards."

Really? Because according to these polls from December 2002 list the frontrunners as Kerry and Lieberman - one has Kerry with 21% to Lieberman's 25%. Senator Edwards, then a relative unknown, pulled a dismal 5% in the Gallup poll.

Lieberman, you'll recall, ran on name recognition while playing to the center-right and staking out hawkish national security grounds - completely unlike a certain other persistently hawkish centrist whose name rhymes with "Shmillary Shminton."

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | May 20, 2006 1:41:05 PM

"Really? Because according to these polls from December 2002 list the frontrunners as Kerry and Lieberman - one has Kerry with 21% to Lieberman's 25%. Senator Edwards, then a relative unknown, pulled a dismal 5% in the Gallup poll."

Yes, really.

By December 2002, it was obviously a Kerry/Edwards race to those closely following the game. Buzz and talent at that point was rapidly accumulating around Kerry and Edwards, not around Lieberman.

Keeping up with the latest Gallup poll is not an indication of closely following the game. If you look at current GOP '08 polls, you'll notice Rudy Giuliani leading most polls. But no one closely following the game thinks he has much more than a very long shot at the prize.

Likewise, in the fall of '03, Dean was leading in many polls. But the Kerry campaign made a smart decision to avoid attacking Dean head-on since they understood it was ultimately a Kerry-Edwards race - even though Kerry was second or third in most polls and Edwards was lower than fifth in most polls at the time.

Posted by: Petey | May 20, 2006 1:54:54 PM

I guess the "progressive base" no longer includes African-Americans.

A pro-DLC commenter implying concern about the inclusion of the African-American base. That's novel.

Bill's got a lock on Black affection; maybe that'll be enough to keep it for Hillary. But I bet people tar her with the DLC to spring those votes. I guess we'll see in a couple of years if it works.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | May 20, 2006 1:56:27 PM

And while it's certainly true in 2000 that the nomination was "won and lost long before Iowa chime[d] in," the turning point for 2004 came barely a month before Iowa, when Kerry bailed out his campaign by mortgaging his house. At that point he was considered dead in the water; it wasn't until a week or two before Iowa itself that his numbers started creeping back into the race, and it was still a shock for most pundits when he actually won the race. It's easy to look back and cast the entire primary season in the light of Kerry's post-Iowa aura of inevitability, but the fact is that he didn't have that going for him at all until he stole Iowa out from under Gephardt and Dean - who, let us not forget, were assumed to be the frontrunners for that primary, at least until they lost it - and until then he really had been counted out by nearly everybody. So even a few weeks within the actual primary season, predictions can be wildly off-base. Strategic voting based on polls conducted two years before the fact is just silly.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | May 20, 2006 1:59:59 PM

"There's a whole bunch of African-Americans in Iowa and New Hampshire, aren't there?"

Thanks to Chairman Dean, there will be additional early contests this year, with at least one state between Iowa and NH, and probably one state right after NH. These additional states are being selected for their non-lily white complexion.

This change is greatly to the benefit of Hillary.

Posted by: Petey | May 20, 2006 2:03:52 PM

Keeping up with the latest Gallup poll is not an indication of closely following the game.

And yet here you and Neil are arguing for Edwards based on - surprise, surprise! - the latest polls. Another head-scratcher, this one.

Where were these people who were "closely following the game" in December 2002, by the way? Was there a specific club they hung out at? Did it feature a crystal ball? A ouija board? When all the DLC-types were sweating over Dean's frontrunner status in late '03, did this exclusive gathering of claivoyants chuckle to themselves and say, "Oh, don't worry, boys - a combination of poor money management, bad television ads and an unexpected election night flameout will cause him to tank"? It's too bad this sort of prescience didn't extend to seeing the effects of actual policy - then they could've warned their frontrunners not to vote for one of the most monstrous foreign policy fuck-ups in American history.

Posted by: Iron Lungfish | May 20, 2006 2:12:05 PM

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