Nap Time in America

Nap Time in America

It’s nap time in America. As I write, in the summer of our content, the nation seems blissfully oblivious of the presidential campaign, and the candidates themselves are doing little to rouse it from its rest.

In the case of the W., a quiet candidacy makes perfect sense. The W.’s calling card is his affability, which he can reaffirm daily with a brief, genial appearance. He’s long since sewn up his GOP base—polls show him drawing more than 90 percent Republican support—which frees him to focus solely on moderates and independents, taking care not to startle them with right-wing rhetoric or sudden loud noises.

In the case of Al Gore, however, such silence equals political death. Gore’s not been shy about attacking Bush or trying out some populist themes, but he cannot yet (I’m writing just before the Republican Convention) be said to have a message or to have excited any constituency (for that matter, any individual) I know of. Democrats don’t win unless their base is ablaze with passion, unless unionists and students and enviros have taken to the streets on their behalf. And Gore clearly has not sewn up his base—polls show him drawing between 70 percent and 80 percent of Democrats. He not only has to reach swing voters but reconnect with voters mulling over the Nader option—that is, carry both the Teamsters and the turtles of American politics.

Gore himself is something of an anomaly: a politician who’s genuinely uncomfortable around people. As Nicholas Lehman has noted, he veers between two very distinct modes of behavior: painstaking precision and propriety (the slow-speaking Gore) and hail-fellow folksiness (the g-droppin’ Gore). These, apparently, exhaust his behavioral repertoire; the public Gore knows no other way to conduct himself.

Unfortunately, Gore’s politics are just as unintegrated as his public personalities. In the course of his campaign, he’s made quite a number of discrete progressive proposals, each of which contrasts sharply with the W.’s proposed policies. At the same time, his broad economic vision is sharply at odds with both past and present elements of Democratic economics. Where a more adept politician like Bill Clinton can claim to have synthesized Old and New Democratic beliefs in the third way, Gore simply zips between one and the other. (He is a clearer thinker than Clinton, but a far less supple one.)

Gore is the legitimate heir to a party that has grown far too comfortable with capitalism and its values at the very moment that those values threaten to eclipse all others, reducing citizens to consumers, discourse to advertising. Gore’s Democratic Party (as distinct, say, from David Bonior’s) is more deeply indebted to corporate and financial interests than any party in human history, with the possible exception of Bush’s Republicans. The Democrats are less neoliberal than they are neo-indentured; they are the second coming of the Democratic Par...

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