The official political analysts have observed the following
post-Labor Day features of the presidential race:
- George Bush has lost a 13-point lead over Al Gore
- The two are now in a statistical dead heat
- The Bush campaign is floundering on media and message
- Al Gore has become a populist
From this set of empirics, the analysts of record have deduced that
Gore might win and Bush might lose.
Consequently, the media focus is turning to factors like whether
Gore’s arrogance will get the better of him and turn off the voters
and/or whether Bush can create a more intimate and vulnerable persona by
actually asking Americans to vote for him.
This kind of analysis is sort of fun and even interesting — kind of
like the game the country just finished playing with the television show
“Survivor,” where persona, more than fitness, determined who remained
standing. But is there anything of historical note in the current
electoral dynamics? I think there is. There is a new sensibility on the
part of the American people — one that is distinctly left and populist.
It propels “West Wing” to a sweep of the Emmys. And it is dramatically
changing the equation in presidential politics.
George Bush constructed his drive for the Republican nomination by
positioning himself at the center, well to the left of the party’s
previously dominant conservative wing. The majority of the American
people have rejected social conservatism and Bush has had to put enough
distance between himself and the far right to be viable.
Campaigning against the calcification of the Beltway elite is popular
in American politics nowadays and Bush did well with it — well enough
to establish a commanding lead over Gore. Of course, as a veteran of the
“Champagne Unit” (the Texas Air National Guard), Bush often comes across
(and is!) above the Beltway, rather than outside of it. As long as he
managed to hold on to the projection that he was going beyond the usual
Republicanism to a pro-people, anti-establishment philosophy, his
biography of privilege was not much of a negative.
But when Bush made his vice presidential selection, his new populist
persona crumbled and he tumbled in the polls. Dick Cheney, a hard
rightist and a pillar of the Republican establishment sent in for
gravitas, sent out the wrong message. Bush had flinched, gone to the
right, and left a portion of the more left-leaning electorate behind.
Al Gore, no doubt counseled by the ever-wily Bill Clinton, was quick
to capitalize on the Bush stumble. The pundits were a little startled by
his declarations of class war against the powerful interests, and
analyzed it as a play to the Democratic Party’s core constituencies,
which are well to the left of the party itself. Surely, it was that. But
it was something else,
too. It was part of Gore’s effort to re-invent himself in accordance
with the new progressivism in America.
Gore’s selection of Joe Lieberman was the coup de grace on this
score. Lieberman is an anti-affirmative action, pro-Wall Street
Democratic Leadership Council-style conservative Democrat. Thus, he
placated the party’s center and right, yet had many negatives with
blacks and liberals. But he was also a Jew. And in the not-so-subtle
lexicon of American political culture, “Jew” equals “left.”
Thus Gore managed to go left with Lieberman and populist with his
rhetoric without disturbing the center and the right. Presto! He’s
closed down Bush’s lead. And, what’s perhaps most telling is that he
seems to have gotten away with it, meaning that he made the play without
paying a price.
Now that Bush’s lead has plummeted to zero, the Texas governor must
figure out how to recover. Traditional conservative voices like Bill
Bennett are publicly urging him to go on the attack against Gore as too
far left. But Bush’s Austin advisers are so far resisting.
Austin is looking for their own brand of populism, hence, Bush’s
newfound emphasis on “real plans for real people.” His new ads do not
target Gore’s liberalism, but his credibility as a reformer, by
underscoring the disconnect between the vice president’s call for a
campaign finance overhaul even as Gore racked up an impressive list of
campaign finance violations.
Still, the move toward progressive populism on the part of the
American people does not automatically accrue to the benefit of Gore and
the Democratic Party. Gore’s postmodern leftism aside, both he and Bush
and their parties have wholly capitulated to the most craven globalist
agendas. Populist America is fearful that while many economic indicators
are good, we may well find ourselves in a real life version of
“Survivor,” unable to trust our political environment and the social
contract for protection.
That is the appeal of independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader,
who combines explicit anti-corporatism with a record of consumer
advocacy that Americans associate with a much-desired incorruptibility.
It is also the potential appeal of John Hagelin, the dark horse of the
independents, whose political fortunes are now in the hands of the
Federal Election Commission and soon the courts, which will decide
whether he or Pat Buchanan will be
recognized as the Reform Party presidential nominee.
As independent politics has turned from a center/right movement à la
Perot to a center/left movement à la Nader, the Gore team has had to
apply strenuous pressure to the Teamsters, the United Auto Workers,
Friends of the Earth, and other labor and environmental groups to sign
on with him. They have all acquiesced. But Gore will have to stay strong
on those populist themes in order to remain a contender. If he flinches,
the independents will gain ground and could cost him the election.
That’s the new dilemma in presidential politics. America is moving
left and the parties have to keep pace.