Democrats have a Bob Dole problem and his name is Al Gore.
In 1995 and 1996, Republicans desperately needed a presidential candidate who could break from the stodgy-out-of-touch-white-guy rep of the first Bush administration. Even Bill Clinton's political strategists admitted that the best candidate for beating Clinton in the 1996 election -other than Colin Powell -was Lamar Alexander, a moderate governor from the New South.
But it wasn't Lamar's turn. The party collectively had decided that it was Bob Dole's election to lose. And he did. Even though everybody knew Dole wasn't the best candidate to face Clinton or to represent the GOP, the internal logic of the party made it impossible to stop the Dole juggernaut. Dole had the money, the name ID, the organization and, most important, he'd waited his turn after decades of loyal service to the party.
This time, the Democratic Party has a similar problem, albeit with some important differences. In 1996, the Republicans had to deal with running the same sort of guy again. In 2004, the Democrats are facing the realization that they will have to run the exact same guy again.
Gore scores huge leads in polls of likely primary voters, receiving almost half of all the votes in a match-up against a half-dozen other candidates. Also like Dole, Gore's name ID is unparalleled, except by Senator Clinton and her husband. His fund raising isn't great, but it is much better than anyone else's and will skyrocket as the inevitability of his victory is revealed in the early primaries. But most important, the Democratic rank-and-file feel Gore is entitled to the nomination just as Dole was in 1996.
Those tire screeches and stripping gears you hear coming out of the Democratic Party are the sound of a few Democratic pros trying to stop the bus before Al Gore gets on.
Professional Democrats make no secret of the fact that they want Gore to go away. Every time there's a story about Gore's maneuvering for 2004, some anonymous Democrat clicks his heels three times and says, "There's no place like a Gore-less Democratic party. … There's no place like a Gore-less Democratic party." But when they open their eyes, there's the big sweaty robot swinging his arms and yelling, "Warning Little Americans!
Warning! Big Oil is out to get you!" or something along those lines.
Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, seems to be the only major Democrat offering a rhetorical nod to a Gore candidacy, saying Gore deserves another shot. But that's probably explained by two things: First, McAuliffe is an opportunist and understands that he needs get behind the guy who'll win the nomination as early as possible; second, Bill Clinton can still tell McAuliffe what to do.
Still, a Gore candidacy would be disastrous for the Democratic Party and not too good for the country either.
Gore will not only lose against President Bush (assuming Senator McCain doesn't wound Bush in the primaries), but he is a terrible standard-bearer for the party. And I'm not just referring to the fact that he talks like a pod-person.
A Gore candidacy would once again dredge up all the muck of the Clinton years, making the Democratic Party the Clinton Party for another decade. It would also make the Democrats the sore-loser party, living in the past, rehashing the Florida recount and so on. Just imagine Al Gore's sighs during 2004 debates.
Also, Gore's populism is an embarrassment of hypocrisy. Just a few weeks ago, in a New York Times op-ed, Gore once again skewered Bush for being born with a sense of entitlement to the presidency and for seeing the Oval Office as a tool to protect the privileged. This from a guy whose father, Senator Al Gore Senior, announced young Al's presidential ambitions in a front-page birth announcement in his hometown newspaper. Gore probably keeps the clipping next to his mountain of Occidental Petroleum stock.
A Gore candidacy would be bad for the country because Gore has admitted he would stop at nothing to win. By "letting her rip," Gore would, once again, run a bitterly divisive campaign, accusing anyone who disagrees with him of being a racist, a sexist or of being in the pockets of special interests (all the while depositing checks from teacher's unions and trial lawyers).
Worse, legitimate criticism of Bush's handling of the war on terror and corporate corruption would be undermined because Gore, unlike other prominent Democrats, is deeply tainted by his own actions or inaction on those fronts while serving in the Clinton administration.
But for now, objections to Gore don't matter. Because Democrats aren't any better at fixing their Bob Dole problem than Republicans were.