This morning, the centrist Democratic Leadership Council officially launched the election post-mortem with a lively panel discussion between leading New Democrats and liberals at the National Press Club. At hand was the question of why Al Gore lost the election -- an issue certain to dominate Democratic discussion between now and 2004. Based on this morning's proceedings, the discussion will sound an awful lot like this:
New Democrat: "Gore lost the election because he ran on liberal themes and turned his back on the reform-minded centrism that got Clinton elected in '92 and '96."
Liberal: "Gore got more votes than any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson because he ran on a populist theme that mobilized labor and blacks, and he'd be in the White House today if it weren't for Ralph Nader."
If you're paying attention to the ideological divide between the liberal and conservative wings of the Democratic Party, this is nothing new. Indeed, AFL-CIO political director Steve Rosenthal hinted at this by unleashing the best line of the day in response to DLC pollster Mark Penn's finding that -- drum roll, please -- Gore lost because he didn't run as a New Democrat. Had Gore won, Rosenthal cracked, "We'd be listening to Mark Penn explain that Al Gore won because he did run as a New Democrat." The fact that both sides glean whatever they wish from the polling data suggests these differences won't soon be resolved.
But the two factions did seem to agree on a couple of things: Bush won because he mimicked Clinton, co-opting Democratic themes and blurring the difference between himself and Gore. Bush connected with moderates on education, something at which Gore could have done a better job. Gore inherited a good economy, sure, but he also got stuck with the tab for Clinton's ethical transgressions. And Gore, as a candidate, basically sucked.
As the discussion proceeded and Gore's shortcomings were tallied, an image of the ideal Democratic candidate in 2004 slowly began to emerge. He couldn't be too smart or he'd risk condescending to poorly educated white males and lose their vote, as Gore did. He'd need to be better at attracting self-identified "moderates," who now comprise half the electorate. He couldn't cede the mantle of "reformer" to his opponent and rely on the status quo. Nor could he turn his back on "accountability," which ranks right up there with "uniting-not-dividing" as issues that get swing voters' hearts pounding.
Then there is the intangible that every good politician seems to possess. Ruy Teixeira, one of the liberals on the panel, best captured this by observing that the next Democratic candidate should be able to pass the "can you hang?" test -- that is, can the candidate "hang out on the street corner in South Philly and be able to talk to people"? Bush could. Clinton could. Gore certainly could not.
So let's see -- the Democratic nominee in 2004 must be laid back to a fault, moderate in rhetoric, big on education and accountability, a "uniter-not-a-divider," appealing to uneducated voters, and not too sharp himself (gulp!) sound like anyone you know?