Five years ago, Al Gore was on his way to near-pariah status within the Democratic Party, scorned for losing the 2000 presidential election and then avoiding the public stage. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was the toast of the party. She won raves from both parties for her deft and humble Senate debut, and the only question surrounding her future was whether she would scoop up the presidential nomination in 2008 or jump in four years sooner.
Today, it's all been turned on its head. Gore has never been more popular. I haven't seen "An Inconvenient Truth," but every liberal who has seems to walk out of the theater thinking — even before they think "global warming is scary" — that they wish Gore were president.
Meanwhile, New York magazine has published not one but two articles fretting about the prospect of Clinton winning the 2008 nomination. A recent straw poll in the liberal blog Daily Kos gave Gore an astonishing 68% of the vote, beating his closest challenger by more than 50 points. Clinton's result? Zero percent. (Actually, she pulled down 77 votes, or 1/100th of Gore's total, but it rounded down to zero.)
How did this happen? It appears the grand Clinton strategy is backfiring. As a prospective national candidate, she has two great vulnerabilities. First, many voters think she's too liberal. Second, many voters also see her as cold, calculating and unlikable.
Her response to this was to position herself in the center, cozying up with her former GOP tormenters in the Senate, staking out hawkish positions and making an overture to cultural conservatives. The theory was that her centrist positions would endear her to moderates but that it wouldn't cost her on the left, because years of conservative vilification caused liberals to bond with her emotionally.
But instead of moderates focusing on her positions while liberals focus on her persona, the opposite seems to be happening. Moderates fear she remains too culturally divisive to win. And liberals can't stand her centrist positioning. It's the worst of all worlds.
What Clinton seems not to get is that few people evaluate candidates as the sum of their positions. Voters just don't know enough about the issues to do it. (Nor, for that matter, do most political journalists.) Instead, they have a basic impression of the candidate's character, and the issues feed into that.
Mark Schmitt, an extremely smart liberal at the New America Foundation, coined a saying that captures the dynamic: "It's not what you say about the issues, it's what the issues say about you."
In other words, the literal popularity of an issue often matters less than the way that issue fits into a narrative of a politician's character. John McCain used his support for campaign finance reform to craft a narrative of himself as a brave truth-teller unafraid of special interests. George W. Bush in 2000 used a couple of issue positions relatively minuscule in scale (faith-based initiatives, education reform) to craft an image as a compassionate innovator.
Clinton's problem is that everything she does to staunch her perceived ideology problem compounds her perceived character problem. What she says about the issues may be popular, but what the issues say about her is that she's a shameless self-reinventor.
Gore is winning plaudits because he's in the opposite position. A couple of years ago he appeared to be veering too far left when he denounced the Iraq war and the administration's disregard for civil liberties. But now, almost no one can argue with those positions — certainly not any prospective Democratic voter. And his focus on global warming, which may not rank high on the list of voter concerns in Ohio, points to his genuine conviction on the issue. Gore cared about the environment before it was cool (or, as it were, warm.) The issue helps him more as a character issue than a substance one.
Gore has expressed a reluctance to run, explaining that he lacks much talent or affinity for backslapping and political sound bites. I find his self-awareness admirable. Clinton seems to have even less natural political talent than Gore. Unfortunately, she's less aware of her limitations.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic, where he has worked since 1995. He has written for The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Slate, Time, American Prospect and other publications.
© 2006 The Los Angeles Times