Sunday, May 28, 2006

More Liberal Yearning for Gore

Jonathan Chait has a column in the Los Angeles Times touting the ability of Gore to seem a more natural politician of conviction than Hillary Clinton. He reviews how Clinton decided that her main problem in a run for the presidency was that people perceived her as too liberal so she has spent the last six years staking out more moderate and conservative positions. However, this backfired because she ticked off the liberals in the party and just came across as a calculating opportunist who didn't believe anything except what she thought would help her get elected.
What Clinton seems not to get is that few people evaluate candidates as the sum of their positions. Voters just don't know enough about the issues to do it. (Nor, for that matter, do most political journalists.) Instead, they have a basic impression of the candidate's character, and the issues feed into that.

Mark Schmitt, an extremely smart liberal at the New America Foundation, coined a saying that captures the dynamic: "It's not what you say about the issues, it's what the issues say about you."

In other words, the literal popularity of an issue often matters less than the way that issue fits into a narrative of a politician's character. John McCain used his support for campaign finance reform to craft a narrative of himself as a brave truth-teller unafraid of special interests. George W. Bush in 2000 used a couple of issue positions relatively minuscule in scale (faith-based initiatives, education reform) to craft an image as a compassionate innovator.

Clinton's problem is that everything she does to staunch her perceived ideology problem compounds her perceived character problem. What she says about the issues may be popular, but what the issues say about her is that she's a shameless self-reinventor.
Enter Al Gore, man of conviction, who opposed the war in Iraq and was talking about global warming before it was cool.

You know it's bad for Hillary when Al Gore seems a smoother politician than she does.

I still think that the bloggers on Daily Kos or the Huffington Post and writers like Chait who dread a Hillary Clinton candidacy in 2008 are dreaming if they think that someone like Al Gore is going to beat her out in the primaries. Al Gore might have looked more personable reading scripted lines on Saturday Night Live, but have they forgotten what a weird mix of wooden campaigner and populist rabble-rouser he was in 2000? Has that man totally disappeared? Do people really want a retread like Gore? I know that I'm not in tune with the Democratic primary voter, but I remember that these were the same sorts of people who were positive that Howard Dean was going to steamroll to the nomination in 2004, at least until he bombed out before the first primary.