Less than a hour after George Bush concluded his party’s have-a-nice-election convention with a vapid but beyond-the-expectations acceptance speech, a source deep within the Gore camp called me. This person had already conferred with several Gore-ites, and each had expressed the same sentiment: “Oh shit. What do we do now?” Bush and the Republicans had succeeded in staging an r&b-scored, feel-good revue that transfused Bush’s own affability into his campaign and party, that defined the election as a contest mostly of personality and character (with Bush oddly cast as the morally upright grown-up sadly disappointed with Clinton and Gore because of you-know-what), and that rendered the now smirk-free Bush into presidential material presiding over a united party that has reined in its more extreme elements.
The ease and cunning with which the Bush campaign distanced itself–in sights and sound–from the Party of Newt was frightening for Democrats. No calls for culture wars. No shrill attacks. No demands for dramatic downsizing of the federal government. No bowing to the religious right or the gun nuts. No mention of the impeachment jihad. None of the harsh stuff Democrats have desperately relied on in recent years. After all, who needs policies when you can satanize Gingrich and cry out, “The religious right is coming”? For their part, Bush and Dick Cheney did champion a few policy ideas–privatizing Social Security, implementing sweeping tax cuts, instituting school vouchers–but the thrust of both of their speeches was that Gore should be booted to avenge the honor of the Oval Office.
In other words, this election is about a stain.
Rather than challenge that proposition, Gore confirmed it when he selected Senator Joe Lieberman, the “New Democrat” from Connecticut, to be his running mate. After watching the GOPers try to establish the race as a competition of standards and character, Gore elected not to fight back with issues. Instead, he handcuffed himself to a probity stand-in, a socially conservative Orthodox Jew who prominently scolded Bill Clinton for his pseudo-sex scandal. Gore’s response to the Republicans’ collective tsk-tsk over Clinton: Yes, this is about a stain, but I have my own personal delouser.
But placing a dry cleaner on the ticket only calls attention to the mess. It doesn’t compensate–or change the topic. Moreover, Lieberman’s brand of cleaning fluid ruins as much material as it destains. Lieberman, who chairs the corporate-funded, right-leaning Democratic Leadership Council, flirted with partial privatization of Social Security and experimenting with school vouchers–ideas promoted by Bush and attacked by Gore as risky schemes. With Lieberman by his side, Gore can no longer slam Bush on these crucial fronts. He’s traded ammunition for cover. During the Republican convention, Al From, the DLC’s grand pooh-bah, moaned, “We can expect GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush to continue aping our politics throughout the rest of the campaign.” Who’s the monkey now? Nanoseconds after the Lieberman news hit the cable shows, the Bush campaign gleefully zapped out a nose-thumbing statement: “From Social Security reform to missile defense, tort reform to parental notification [regarding abortion], and from school choice to affirmative action, Al Gore has chosen a man whose positions are more similar to Governor Bush’s than to his own.” An overstatement, but a very useful one for the Republicans.