Washington This election season, entering its final three weeks, illuminates Democrats' problems and foreshadows the contest for their 2004 presidential nomination. Consider Al Gore and the Goldberg Possibility.
In 1970, when former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg ran for governor of New York against Nelson Rockefeller, Goldberg's ineffectual campaigning caused a wit to say that if Goldberg gave one more speech he would lose Canada, too. Gore has recently given two speeches. One more and he could lose even Palm Beach in 2004.
On Iraq, he said Saddam Hussein is intolerable, and so, for the moment, is the president's policy of removing Saddam. In his speech on the economy, Gore said conditions are awful, largely because of the president's tax cuts, so the president should ... rescind the tax cuts? No, Bush should "reassess" and "come to the table." And fire somebody (Gore did not say whom).
Gore's tone recalled his performance in the first presidential debate: condescending. That may help Gore appeal to Green Party voters, the advanced thinkers who cost him the presidency. But for 50 years now, many liberals the tone-setting activists of the Democratic Party have confused condescension with a political philosophy.
Eisenhower was disdained as a syntactically challenged soldier whose smile mesmerized the silly electorate. Reagan? An actor whose smile ... you know. Bush? Syntactically challenged, but his smile ...
The unprecedented durability of Bush's high post-9-11 job approval ratings, more durable than FDR's after Pearl Harbor, suggests that he has connected with the public in a way that only two other presidents have done since 1945 those shallow smilers, Eisenhower and Reagan.
Eisenhower was a world figure before becoming president. Reagan had been a professional at connecting with the public, as actor and then orator (for General Electric), before entering politics. Bush never mind his well-crafted set speeches; listen to him as he leans on a lectern, chatting to an audience of carpenters is completely comfortable being himself, a skill still eluding Gore in his 55th year.
House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt may be Gore's most formidable rival for the 2004 nomination. Hence Gephardt's collaboration with Bush in drafting a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq is being ascribed to motivations connected to nomination politics.
But simple conviction sometimes is a sufficient explanation of political behavior, and in this instance probably explains Gephardt's. His position may actually hurt him in the first important nomination contest, the Iowa caucuses.
He won the caucuses in 1988. However, largely because of the German and Scandinavian immigration that shaped upper-Midwestern progressivism, Iowa has a strong streak of semi-isolationism. FDR carried Iowa comfortably in 1932 and 1936, but lost it on the eve of war (1940) and during the war (1944). In 1972 George McGovern lost 49 states, but Iowa was one of just 12 states where he got more than 40 percent of the vote. His 40.5 percent of Iowa's vote almost equaled the 40.8 percent Hubert Humphrey received there in 1968.
In 1991, Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, Iowa's senior senator, was one of just two Republicans (the other was Oregon's Mark Hatfield) to vote against the 1991 resolution authorizing the Gulf War. (Grassley now supports the president's use-of-force resolution.) Today, Iowa's senior congressman, Jim Leach, a 13-term Republican, has announced opposition to the president's resolution.
Because Democrats have deep divisions on national security issues, they are forced to say strange things, as Gephardt did last week when shown a television ad being used by the Republican Senate candidate in South Dakota, Rep. John Thune, against Sen. Tim Johnson. Gephardt was asked to comment on this from the ad:
"Al-Qaida terrorists, Saddam Hussein enemies of America working to obtain nuclear weapons. Now, more than ever, our nation must have a missile defense system to shoot down missiles fired at America. Yet Tim Johnson's voted against a missile defense system 29 different times."
Gephardt, who is too intelligent to muster more than synthetic indignation about such things, worked himself up to say the ad is "immoral" because it says Johnson is "not patriotic." But it doesn't. It questions Johnson's judgment, not his patriotism.
Gephardt said it is wrong "to drag politics" into "homeland security or national security questions." But are the only proper political questions the less-than-life-and-death questions the minimum wage, not national security?
Democrats, currently holding homeland security legislation hostage to the demands of public employees unions, cannot long prosper by insisting on minimalist politics, drained of debate about divergent judgments concerning national security. And a presidential candidate piously refusing to "drag" the most momentous matters into politics would be preposterous.
George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.