To hear the national mass media tell it, the 2008 race for the Democratic presidential nomination is already over: The Clinton juggernaut has clinched the nod for the junior senator from New York. The self-appointed pundits and prognosticators of the Fourth Estate are reveling nonstop in Hillary mania. Rarely, if ever, in modern times has the open nomination of a major party been handed by consensus to an unannounced candidate two years before any primaries or caucuses have been held.
A reasonable observer might ask why. At least two factors appear at play, neither of them especially edifying. To begin with, a large portion of the media are less concerned about the future of the country than about political theater -- specifically, the drama and human interest inherent in a battle royal between the perceived heavyweights of the two parties, Hillary Clinton and John McCain. From the media's viewpoint, what's not to like? It would be exciting entertainment, not to mention great fodder for the talk shows.
Of course, the two contenders first have to be nominated, starting with Hillary. Here, it gets a little more complicated. The Washington press corps not only likes the potential matchup, it approves of the political stance of the two principals, both of whom are reckoned to be centrists within their respective parties -- Hillary the anti-Dean, McCain the anti-Bush. Although enthralled by the blunt, no-nonsense McCain persona, the beltway commentariat is more in sync with the Clinton posture of conservative liberalism than with the Arizona senator's liberal conservatism.
Like the Clintons, the affluent, upwardly mobile foot soldiers of the corporate media started out mostly on the left in the 1960s and 1970s, and have been migrating rightward ever since, finally settling on the congenial middle ground of moderate social policy, activist diplomacy and free-market economics.
So it is that the recent Clinton maneuverings (supporting Bush on Iraq, urging a ban on flag burning, courting the business community, advocating balanced budgets and red-state moral values), which the Democratic base has found distasteful and hypocritical, met with widespread media approval. The inconvenient reality, however, is that Democrats, not the media, will choose the Democratic nominee. This begs the obvious question of who else besides the preordained (but probably unelectable) Mrs. Clinton that prospective nominee might be.
The bench is wide but not deep. There is Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin senator who's right on the war and right on civil liberties, an honest, able tribune for liberal principles whose personality is not compelling; he's yet to project the vision or charisma to move masses of voters. There are the oft-mentioned governors, of whom Mark Warner of Virginia and Tom Vilsack of Iowa have attracted the most attention. Here again, the charisma quotient is nil, the personalities bland. Warner, a liberal in the Virginia context, would be a conservative in most blue states. Vilsack, who once seemed promising, has defected to the Democratic Leadership Council.
Another forlorn hopeful from the DLC wing of the party is Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who might be described as Joe Lieberman without the angst. His Senate colleague Joe Biden of Delaware wants to run as a foreign-policy hawk during an unpopular war. Neither will get far. Then there is Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, a future star without doubt, but too youthful and inexperienced for 2008. It would be unfair both to him and the country to pressure him into running next time.
On to the 2004 ticket. John Kerry wants to try again, but the response you hear is the sound of one hand clapping. Kerry was a special candidate for a special time, when the nominee had to establish unquestioned military and patriotic bona fides. (Gen. Wesley Clark suffers the same problem of contemporary relevance.) And Kerry, sad to say, was a waffler on the major issue that confronted him. In 2008, the successful nominee will have to carry no Iraq baggage and appeal more broadly on issues besides war.
John Edwards, former North Carolina senator, is a much better bet for Democrats than his ex-running mate. He has the looks, the personality and, above all, the issues. He's convincingly disavowed his vote for the Iraq invasion, and his critiques of free trade and poverty were among the highlights of the 2004 primary season.
Lately, Edwards has called for government facilitation of unionization, a WPA for post-Katrina New Orleans and a hefty hike in the federal minimum wage. In contrast to any other Democratic prospect, he actually has a domestic program, and it's liberal.
What Edwards doesn't have is a base from which to run; he holds no office and, of necessity, is operating beneath the radar, running what is essentially a stealth campaign. Edwards's lack of visibility could be his undoing; the media, certainly, is ignoring him. The truth is, the primary system is now so frontloaded that unknown or low-profile political quantities can't emerge in time to win nomination. This effectively eliminates most potential Clinton challengers, few of whom possess her instant recognizability.
That leaves the large, invisible presence in the room: Al Gore, who has said he won't run again, but who periodically resembles a warhorse chomping at the bit. If the former vice president declared, he would instantly create a political counterbalance to the Clinton momentum machine. His credentials are impeccable; he's run (and won) before, being counted out only by the Supreme Court. Gore would be a formidable candidate, a better one than in 2000; he's more relaxed, more comfortable in his own skin and a much improved speaker. Indeed, he gave the three best speeches leading up to the 2004 election (on Iraq, terrorism and the economy) in 2003, before dropping out of the race. And his rhetorical response to warrantless government eavesdropping earlier this year was a genuine tour de force.
Best of all, from the progressive perspective, Gore has found his inner populist and moved left in the direction of the party's grassroots. He is a firm critic of the war, he favors universal health insurance on the single-payer model, and he is the most prominent national spokesman on threats to the global environment. He has even reassessed his earlier support for free trade. At the moment, the former veep poses the strongest, most credible liberal alternative to the centrist takeover of the Democratic party by the resurgent Clinton forces.
C'mon, Al, run.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Maine.