Christmas is coming, and with itdepending on whether the electorate has been naughty or nicethe announcement of Al Gore’s future presidential intentions. The smart moneyand for that matter, the dumb moneyis betting that he’s in the race again, based on his recent book tour and boffo appearance on The Tonight Show.
While his scheduled appearance on Saturday Night Live may be attracting more attention, Gore also has said something substantive in the last few weeks that may give clues about what he’s planning to do and how he’s planning to do it. In a break from the past, Gore recently said he had reluctantly decided to support a single-payer national health plan as a means to provide universal health care.
Single-payer in health care means that the government ultimately disburses all payments for covered health care, although there remains considerable room for maneuver on the details. Canada has single-payer health insurance, which has produced both lower costs than in the United States and problems with availability. Medicare is also a single-payer plan.
Health care was the issue that essentially wrecked the Democratic Party in the 1990s, when the failed reform plan in the first two years of the Clinton-Gore administration helped lead to devastating losses in Congress. Although Bill Clinton was able to resurrect his own fortunes, the party’s other candidates continue to pay for the venture. Many of Clinton’s critics on the left of the party blame his failure to propose a single-payer plan for the troubles. Instead, Clinton’s own proposal sought to straddle between single payer and conservative proposals, pleasing no one and confusing most everyone.
More than any other reason, Gore failed in his presidential bid because his personality didn’t play well in public. Indeed, the best moments in his campaign came when he focused on matters of substance. While opinion elites and other political theater critics derided him, his best poll moves followed development of his populist themes. His most recent moves toward prime time appearances may be efforts to remake his personality, but he also seems to understand that he can only win on substance.
Gore must dig out of a serious hole after having committed the most serious sin in American politics: losing. A recent New York Times poll showed him with just a 19 percent favorable rating, a pretty remarkable tumble for somebody who actually won the popular vote in 2000. But then, it shouldn’t be surprising. Eighteen months after the 1988 presidential election, a Gallup Poll found that people who said they voted in the election had preferred George Bush by a 2-to-1 margin over Michael Dukakis. Bush actually got just 53 percent of the vote.
If you’re in the business of promoting other businesses and politicians, you can’t let an opportunity go by to promote yourself either. With the election over, the Ingram Group is now busily calling attention to itself with the release of the “2002 Tennessee Smell Test,” an e-mail survey of political operatives, press types and other hangers-on with their opinions on the high points and low points of the recent campaigns.
Democratic Senate candidate Bob Clement was cited for having the least effective television ads and also for looking the most out of place in his own commercials when he was shown dancing. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Bredesen was named as having the best campaign trail accommodations, while Jennifer Coxe of the Van Hilleary campaign earned the “most annoying spokesman” distinction by a stunningly wide margin.
Not everything made sense, of course. Asked to name the issue that made the most difference in the campaign, 61 percent said it was the income tax. Hilleary was the candidate who made the biggest issue out of the income tax, yet he went down to defeat, suggesting it was less salient than the conventional wisdom would suggest. Bill Fletcher, who ran Bob Clement’s campaign, was identified as the campaign manager whose political career is most likely to be overwhich probably represents wishful thinking in some quarters as opposed to anything else.
None of this means anythingit’s all a bit of insider fun and invective. But even a methodologically flawed, self-promoting exercise can sometimes lurch uncontrollably into the truth, as one conclusion seems pretty much beyond debate. Survey respondents named the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s Rick Locker, the Nashville bureau chief, the “best informed political reporter in Tennessee.” Indeed, the top three reporters in the survey all work for Scripps Howard newspapersTom Humphrey of The Knoxville News-Sentinel was second and Paula Wade of The Commercial Appeal was third.
During the gubernatorial campaign, Democrat Phil Bredesen derided his opponent Van Hilleary as never having held a job anywhere except with his daddy or for the government. The jape was a little unfair, since one of his government jobs was as a pilot in the Gulf War. But given the kind of anti-government demagogy Hilleary tended to use, it was also a reasonable comeuppance. As for now, Hilleary doesn’t know what he’s doing nextbut he’s announced that he’ll be seeking another statewide elected government job in 2006.
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