In this dramatic and unpredictable campaign season, Democrats and Republicans alike seem susceptible to wild enthusiasms—and equally susceptible to discarding them once events have shaken them. The Democratic fantasy of the moment is that somehow—perhaps at the August convention in Denver—Al Gore will become the party’s nominee. The Republican fantasy is that John McCain will name Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as his running mate. Both scenarios reflect the parties’ respective weaknesses and needs.
The Democratic idea of drafting Gore—or having Gore somehow emerge as the compromise candidate, in an as-yet-unknown scenario—is an obvious product of the bitter primary battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. While cold-eyed analysts insist that Clinton has almost no chance of securing the nomination, she shows no sign of quitting and in fact looks ready to grind on in the race at least until the primaries end in June. Though she faces a probably insurmountable task, she is emboldened by her recent big-state victories in Texas and Ohio, by her likely win later this month in another big state, Pennsylvania, and by tougher media scrutiny of her opponent.
The romance of Gore also has to do with his near-regal stature in progressive circles in the wake of his Nobel Prize, his martyr status from the 2000 election, and his climate-change documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. He now has what he never had as Bill Clinton’s vice president—moral authority—and he would be the logical go-to candidate to reunite a party that could be dangerously fractured by election day. A recent poll indicated that more than 20 percent of both Clinton’s and Obama’s backers would vote for John McCain in November if their candidate didn’t receive the nomination; presumably these voters would be likelier to rally around Gore.
Yet the idea of Gore’s becoming the nominee isn’t just implausible; it’s ill-advised. The Democratic Party has spent eight years protesting the infamous Florida recount and the Supreme Court ruling that decided it in George W. Bush’s favor, and it has invented a primary system to make “every vote count”—to a nearly paralyzing degree. For the party to settle the most contentious nomination battle in a generation by choosing a man who has won not a single vote boggles the mind. If Democrats fear the divisiveness that will result when either Obama or Clinton loses the nomination, just wait until they feel the anger from both camps. The Gore solution might have worked a century ago, or even a half-century ago, in the era before the primary system supplanted the smoke-filled room. In today’s Democratic Party, it would be suicide.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, an equally ill-advised but probably more plausible scenario has been floating around for some time: Rice for veep. The Republican bench is thin these days, and the other choices one hears aren’t particularly inspiring. How else to explain the appeal of Rice, one of President Bush’s top aides and an official intimately tied to the Iraq War? Nominating someone so closely associated with the deeply unpopular Bush administration smacks of willful self-destruction.
Further, Rice’s performance as national security adviser—in which she was supposed to coordinate among agencies, synthesize information, and bring differing views to the president—was marked by mismanagement and passivity. Her record as secretary of state isn’t much better; she is so close to the president that, as biographers like Elizabeth Bumiller have pointed out, she seems to be playing the comforting role of best friend or loyal retainer more than the unpleasant one of adviser willing to bring the president bad news or challenge his assumptions.
Part of the argument for putting Rice on the ticket is likely the assumption that she might help Republicans in their long-running attempt to attract black votes. Nominating a black woman for vice president, the thinking goes, would be an effective identity-politics flanking maneuver against either Obama or Clinton. The Republican Party is generally still afraid to make an honest case for meritocratic policies on race; taking a page from the Democrats’ book, and choosing symbolism and identity politics, seems so much easier, though to date such efforts have netted next to nothing in the way of black votes. Republicans should thank Rice for her efforts and let her go her own way next January.
In a campaign year destined to be remembered as one of our most unusual, it shouldn’t be surprising that the two parties find otherwise unlikely scenarios appealing. The Republicans have suffered multiple body blows during Bush’s second term, while the Democrats have watched the 2008 race for the White House change from a shoo-in to a tense and potentially explosive internal power struggle. Yet in both cases, the parties’ fantasy candidates would cause more problems than they would solve.