It is a testament to Al Gore’s weakness as a candidate that he could enter the presidential contest as the presumed co-author of so many positives—peace, virtual full employment, a booming economy, steady and serious declines in crime, poverty and other social ills—and yet still manage to win less than fifty percent of the vote.
By any measure, only a candidacy by a returning Jesus Christ should have kept Gore from romping into the White House. But all Gore’s advantages appear to have been wiped out by his powerful negatives.
Once considered a man of integrity, Gore has demonstrated what Bill Clinton apparently could see right from the start, that the vice president is as willing to lie and cheat for power as is Clinton himself. The difference is that Clinton is good at lying and cheating and Gore isn’t.
When Clinton lies, most often he does so cleverly, and on the occasions where he lies himself into a corner, he resorts to an escape hatch he perfected as governor of Arkansas: a public act of contrition. Though this technique is mostly act rather than contrition, Clinton discovered long ago that it is sufficient to exploit an otherwise admirable feature of the American character, a generous willingness to forgive.
Gore lies ineptly, sometimes stupidly, sometimes inexplicably. Why lie about his previous anti-abortion stand or embellish his safe, comfortable and short service in Vietnam when the facts are well-documented and the witnesses abundant?
And when caught in these lies, Gore, unlike his boss, is incapable of admitting a mistake or of faking regret. That’s why Gore can never be a forgivable rogue like Clinton. Instead Gore is a sanctimonious know-it-all who admits no errors and recognizes no controlling legal authority.
But it is no credit to George Bush, that given such an unlikable opponent, he, too, failed to garner even half the vote. Though he clearly trumps Gore in personality, politically Bush only timidly tried to differentiate himself from his rival. In fact, as the campaign progressed, both men beat a path to the innocuous political center, where they split the vote nearly perfectly between them. The fact that voters shaved the GOP edge in Congress even thinner shows how limp the GOP has gone.
It should be clear to both parties that they have a big problem: Neither is selling anything that a majority of voters wants to buy. The parties can stick close to the center and prolong this stalemate, or they can take a chance and put forward an agenda that actually proposes to do something. The Congressional elections of 2002 and the presidential election of 2004 will go to the party that solves this problem first.
But this difficulty is far larger for Democrats than Republicans. That’s because the old political labels have been reversed. The fact is that the major conservative party in America today is the Democratic Party. On any major issue—Social Security, Medicare, race relations, education, defense—the Democrats circle the wagons around the status quo to defend the entrenched interests who benefit from keeping things just the way they are.
In fact, Gore made fear of change the mantra of his campaign, labeling even Bush’s modest and tentative proposals for entitlement reform as “risky schemes” and even hilariously casting Republicans as fiscal libertines who can’t be trusted to manage the federal budget responsibly. With Gore, the party that once regarded itself as the cutting edge of progress and reform now terrorizes its constituencies into action by holding up the dreaded prospect of change.
Meanwhile, it is conservatives (imperfectly and often ineptly represented by the GOP) who have embraced progressive ideas such as privatizing Social Security, parental choice in education, and coherent new post-Cold War foreign and defense policies.
With enlightened leadership, the GOP could be exploiting this reversal of party roles to great effect, staking its claim as the true progressive party in America.
But to do this would require the Republican Party to stop apologizing for itself and to refuse, at long last, to acquiesce in its own demonization. It ought to begin by dumping Dubya’s “compassionate conservative” label, since the phrase implicitly damns conservatism as heartless, thus accepting and legitimizing the prime Democrat slander against the GOP.
A confident and vertebrate GOP could easily demonstrate that Democrats have no monopoly on compassion. It is not compassionate for Democrats to hold minority children hostage in failed public school systems that benefit only teachers unions. It is not compassionate to prolong minority dependence with government handouts and racial preferences. It is not compassionate to delude seniors that all is well with Social Security and Medicare, nor to hide from young workers that in a few decades they face crushing levels of taxation to support these misconceived senior entitlements. It is not compassionate to leave America’s families at the mercy of missiles controlled by sadistic tyrants in Pyongyang or Baghdad.
Republicans also should stop passively accepting Democrat pre-eminence in race relations. It is ridiculous that the Democratic Party—which built and maintained until the mid-1960s the Jim Crow system of Southern apartheid—should be allowed to get away with portraying the party that freed the slaves as a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Gore’s own late father, as Democratic Senator from Tennessee, voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a bill that only triumphed over Democratic opposition because of overwhelming support from Republicans.
The GOP’s virtual silence on race is a double whammy, allowing Democrats to escape the burden of their own racial sin while simultaneously preventing the GOP from capitalizing on its own civil-rights triumphs.
For 70 years after the Civil War, black voters were Republican voters. The GOP could reclaim that allegiance by working to free blacks from public school systems that leave their children educationally crippled and unequipped to seize the opportunities available to everyone else in America. Republicans could become the champions of individual black empowerment, success and liberation from the plantation of Democratic paternalism.
But none of these things will happen until Republicans begin to take serious stands on issues such as these, until they vigorously reject and refute Democrat slanders and historical revisionism, until, in other words, they give the American people something worth voting for.
None of this happened in this election, and it shows.
Glenn Sheller is an editorial writer for The Columbus Dispatch. The opinions expressed here are his own.