Sunday, October 11, 2015

What Jonathan Chait Doesn't Get About Al Gore and Hillary Clinton

In a recent piece in New York magazine, Jonathan Chait compares the problems of the Hillary Clinton campaign to those that plagued Al Gore's in 2000. Chait cites two major similarities: Clinton fatigue (as in Bill) and the trustworthiness of both. Regarding the latter, Chait writes the following:

The mechanism that transferred Clinton’s well-known moral failings onto his vice-president was an exceedingly technical fund-raising scandal. Gore made fund-raising calls for the Democratic Party from the White House, which did not violate either the letter or the spirit of the law (the Pendleton Act, which was intended to prevent shaking down potential officeholders for donations). But reporters found Gore’s performance untrustworthy anyway. The vice-president, reported the New York Times in 1997, “used legalistic language, which he repeated verbatim several times, to say he had not violated another law that prohibits anybody from raising campaign money in the White House.” As a result, scandal-tinged themes came to dominate news coverage of Gore. His attempts to create new narratives merely resulted in chortling reporters mocking him for trying too hard to reshape his image, reinforcing their theme that he lacked “authenticity.” 
The email scandal currently dogging the Hillary Clinton campaign has played a similar role. The charges are more serious than the accusations against Gore — Clinton’s use of a private email server undeniably amounted to a violation of protocol and poor judgment. It has served as grist for the news media to fixate on a process story upon which it can build larger narratives about her character. Those narratives feed into long-standing ethical concerns dating from the Clinton administration and the Clinton post-presidency, during which the former president profited immensely from relationships with figures who had a clear interest in currying favor, then or in the future, with his wife. The Obama administration has managed to avoid any significant scandals with credibility in the mainstream media (only partisan Republicans still cling to the belief that Benghazi or alleged IRS targeting of opponents were real). Ironically, both Al Gore in 2000 and Hillary Clinton today inherited much of their reputation for shadiness from the same person: Bill Clinton.

While Chait does have a point in that both Gore and Clinton have had issues with what he referred to as "authenticity," he is incorrect in his basic premise about what did Gore in back in 2000 and what threatens Clinton in 2016. 

Contrary to the popular narrative that he and other political pundits have subscribed to, Gore did not lose the 2000 presidential election because of either Clinton fatigue or his lack of trustworthiness. He lost for two major reasons: One, he ran a lousy campaign from the start; and two, he lost progressives in droves to Ralph Nader, who ran a mainly spoiler campaign that ended up costing Gore Florida.

Regarding the former, the Gore campaign ran as far away from the President as was possible. This was a strategic blunder. Even with all the problems besetting Bill, he continued to have strong approval ratings. The impeachment proceedings that the Republicans initiated against him in 1998, far from damaging him, seemed to have backfired on the GOP.  In fact, it was the Republicans who lost political capital, as the '98 midterms revealed all too clearly. Rather than running away from Clinton, Gore would've done better running towards him. It also would've helped immeasurable if he didn't look so programmed. Standing next to George Bush on the debate stage, Gore looked like a mannequin.

But regarding the latter, it was progressive indifference and, in some cases, animosity towards Gore that proved particularly fatal. Put succinctly, they simply didn't believe he was one of them. While they tolerated Bill, who at least kept the Republicans out of the White House, they never really warmed to Al. The correct analogy that Chait might have referenced was that of George H.W. Bush running in 1988. No true conservative really believed that Bush was a disciple of supply-side economics. Hell, he called it voodoo economics back in 1980. But they looked the other way in '88, especially when Bush did everything but dry hump Ronald Reagan throughout the campaign. Without someone they could rally behind, progressives turned their hopes toward Nader in 2000, and Gore didn't so much as put up a fight to win any of them back.

This is the primary reason why Hillary Clinton has moved so far to the left on issues like trade and the Keystone pipeline. Yes, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren had a lot to do with that, but credit her for at least paying attention to the winds swirling around the Democratic Party. She might be arrogant, but, unlike Gore, she isn't stupid.

She's also doing her best to have her cake and eat it too. While she continues to throw red meat at her base, she's careful not to throw her former boss under the bus. The big mistake Democrats made in the 2014 midterms was distancing themselves from Obama. Give this much to Clinton: she took good notes. I'm also guessing that her husband might've had a hand in this. It's no secret Bill's not exactly a fan of Obama, but he is a fan of winning. At some point, he probably said to her something to the effect "Don't bite the hand that feeds you." If Gore had only heeded that wisdom, he might well have won the 2000 election.

And this is where Chait's argument runs off the rails, so to speak. The fact is, as I said in an earlier piece, Hillary Clinton's biggest threat will not come from anything the GOP throws at her, but from her base. Indeed, the latest revelations from Kevin McCarthy's slip of the lip on Sean Hannity's show and a whistle blower who was fired from the Benghazi committee for not focusing enough attention on her, bears this out. Even with the proverbial kitchen sink being thrown at her, she is still leading Sanders in the national polls. And she is holding her own against most of her potential GOP opponents. Even Chait admitted that by 1999, "Gore's campaign had taken on water. Polls showed George W. Bush crushing him" in a landslide.

There is no evidence of anything like that happening to Hillary Clinton. In fact, the opposite appears to be happening. Unlike in 2000, when Bush and John McCain were the only viable contenders for the GOP nomination, the Republican field this time around is very crowded and highly polarizing. It's hard to remember, but both Bush and McCain ran far more inclusive campaigns than their contemporaries are currently doing today. Indeed, during Bush's second term, he supported a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.

The current GOP frontrunners have been anything but inclusive, taking some of the most extreme positions imaginable; positions that may be popular with their base and will likely carry them over the threshold for the nomination, but will provide the Clinton campaign with loads of ammunition in the general election. Trust me, the same thing that brought Mitt Romney down in 2012, will rear its ugly head again in 2016. If there's one thing we've learned about the Republican base over the last six plus years, it's that they can't help themselves.

When you compare the political landscape in 2016 to the political landscape in 2000, it's crystal clear that even with all the issues Hillary Clinton has, she is in much better shape than Al Gore was. The electorate is more progressive now than it was 16 years ago, not to mention more diverse. Conversely, the Republican Party is far more insular now than it was 16 years ago. That doesn't bode well for their prospects next year or in the future.

Far from reliving Al Gore's nightmare, Hillary Clinton appears poised to benefit from some pretty good timing and an opposition party that is stuck in the past and can't get out of its own way. That seems more like a wet dream, if you ask me.

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