The following editorial appeared in Sunday's Washington Post:
The Democratic Party that gathers this week in Los Angeles presents something of a paradox. The usual rules of politics suggest that Vice President Al Gore, who will become the party's official presidential nominee, should be headed toward victory. The Democrats are broadly united around popular, centrist policies; the country is at peace; the economy is experiencing its longest boom ever. And yet the candidate is lagging in the polls. Many Americans are said to regard Gore as a weaker leader than his less experienced rival, even though he has been the most powerful vice president in recent memory.
If you think back to the Democratic convention of eight years ago, the paradox only deepens. The party was far less united then: Its emerging centrist faction, centered on the Democratic Leadership Council, was openly at odds with the party's traditional wing, represented by a congressional leadership ever happy to spend and by charismatic figures like Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson. The party divisions were reflected in the fuzziness of the candidate himself. Bill Clinton did not decide whether he was a liberal spender or a deficit cutter until after he assumed office; he formed his foreign policy views by trial and error. And, on top of these debilitating splits, Clinton had already been brushed by sexual scandal.
This year, by contrast, things ought to be much better. The addition to the Gore ticket of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic Leadership Council's chairman, has cemented the centrists' control of the presidential wing of the party. The congressional Democrats have modified their views in response to electoral defeat in 1994. No party grandees seriously question the Clinton formula: Balance the budget, propose incremental extensions of health and other government programs, and attack Republicans for threatening those sane policies. Gore may be on both sides of some issues, notably trade; but he is a better defined candidate than Clinton was. And, despite some sleazy fund-raising, Gore is a much cleaner figure.
So why is the vice president not faring better? The conventional answer is personality, and in some sense this is true: Gore at times comes across as a priggish lecturer, at times as a stop-at-nothing opportunist. But it is also fair to say that Gore's lecturing side reflects an admirable appetite for understanding complex issues and getting them right; his opportunism reflects a system thoroughly corrupted by money. Gore has the misfortune to be compared first with Clinton and now with Bush, who both exude more charm. But the Clinton record shows that charm is a mixed blessing in a president.
Beyond the question of personality, however, there is a problem that few Democrats acknowledge. Woody Allen once said that a relationship is like a shark -- it has to keep moving forward or it dies -- and the same may well be true of political parties. Clinton moved the Democrats a long way to the center-far enough to win two presidential elections. But the political dividends from that shift are starting to decline; voters may now take budget balance and centrist incrementalism for granted. The Republicans themselves in the person of Bush have meanwhile moved toward the center, providing less of a target. Gore has yet to project a fresh sense of momentum. His best chance to do so comes at this week's convention.
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