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Why Are Gore and Kerry Polling Worse Than Bush?

The big names in the Democratic Party have even lower numbers than Bush -- is that because everyone's ignoring the crisis in our politics?
Be pragmatic. Take a good, long look at reality, and recognize that even though there isn't a Democrat in Washington who will admit that our political system is profoundly sick and obsolete, in the real world, the Democratic Party is currently all we have. So support it anyway.

That's what I've been telling myself, but boy can it be hard to swallow. Take, for example, the sea of problems Hillary Clinton poses to any political idealist. Hillary Clinton may represent many awful things -- Iraq, corporatism, insane military spending -- but the truth is, millions of Americans may well have health care if she becomes president, and they won't if she loses to a Republican in the next election.

I know it's good when Jack Abramoff sinks six congressmen and a senator; I know it's good when Bush's ratings hover in the 30s. I choke down my speeches about how both of these things are symptomatic of systemic problems and not due to the virtue of elected Democrats. And I am intrigued and hopeful at the prospect of Al Gore running for president, even though I think it's bizarre to engage in the dominant political language surrounding presidential contests -- where the every little move of one human being is treated as representative of the political desires of 300 million. Still, that's all there is. So I'm going with it.

This kind of "pragmatism" isn't any easier when the wider public thinks there's something deeply wrong as well. They clearly aren't buying "John Kerry" or "Al Gore" at this point. A recent New York Times poll has both of them ranking below the worst president in history. Kerry is at 26 percent, and former vice president and presidential candidate Gore is at 28 percent. George W. Bush is pulling in at 31 percent.

There are a lot of numbers in the recent poll that would normally give me cause for joy -- the public hates everything about Bush. Only 13 percent think he's done a good job addressing rising gas prices. Twenty-nine percent are still favorably shocked and awed by his performance on Iraq. The surface-level political analysis making the progressive rounds on Bush's bad poll numbers is that they will automatically translate into success for Democrats: takeovers in Congress in 2006, etc.

But if that were the case, it would be fair to expect that a guy like Al Gore would look like the shiniest red apple in the basket. But to repeat, the same poll has Gore polling below George Bush. The Times called Gore one of "Bush's more vocal critics." What does that mean? Let's be pragmatic.

For starters, it means that Al Gore and John Kerry are big losers in the public eye; they weren't the guys at the inauguration. Even though the results of the 2000 and 2004 elections have been contested and remain in dispute, the truth is that neither Gore nor Kerry ever commanded any kind of massive public support for their positions.

If they had, Kerry wouldn't be still grumbling about those 60,000 votes that he needed in Ohio. But this poll that has Gore and Kerry well below Bush is about more than their being losers. If that were true, we might expect to see an untested national-name Democrat, like say, Hillary Clinton, polling at a higher level -- at least in the 40s. But only 31 percent of Americans say they will definitely vote for her, according to the most recent Rassmussen poll.

These bipartisan absurdly low numbers for our national politicians mean to me that there's something more profound going on in American society than our national politicians are willing to fess up to. I think it's something very close to what writer Matt Taibbi once explained about why he wanted to pack the 10 Democrats vying for the Democratic nomination in the 2004 election "into a missile and shoot them into space":
Here we are, in a world that is completely and utterly insane -- where giant fast-food companies spend fortunes researching the responses of three- and four-year-olds in order to exploit them, where billions of dollars are pissed away every day on shitty movies like "Finding Nemo" while schools are going down to the four-day week, and where the average New Yorker sees three or four thousand ads a day, most of which tell him he's fat and impotent, and a Nissan is a better buy than his wife -- and these candidates are up there tinkering, talking about a balanced budget and repealing tax cuts. There isn't a [candidate] among them who even hints at anything like horror before our fatuous, commercial lives.
The Democrats ... don't want to be anything other than better caretakers for that museum of human history. They don't try to imagine a fundamentally better world, because they actually believe that there isn't one. They're buffoons straight out of Voltaire, running on a platform of "Our mild improvements to this best of all possible worlds."
The bigger point is that it seems like the political language that will put a president or presidential candidate way above the magic 50 percent has to channel something deeper than the tinkering BS you hear out of Mark Warner or Bill Frist's mouth. Even the queen of political pangloss, former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, has been willing to admit to a more fundamental sickness in our politics. In an essay she penned last October, she conceded the sense that "we're at the end of something":
I think there is an unspoken subtext in our national political culture right now ... a sense that the wheels are coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks. ... It's beyond, 'The president is overwhelmed.' The presidency is overwhelmed.
In my case, I'd like to see just one establishment politician in Washington to come out of the closet and say it: that our political system hasn't changed since the 18th century; that the lower house of Congress has 435 people "representing" 300 million citizens, in some cases thousands of miles away from their constituents; that the Constitution is outdated, obsolete, virtually unmodified -- but that's just what I want to hear.

All this said, I still want to be pragmatic. And remember, I expect to remain a Democratic Party cheerleader. I know it will be good if there's a Democratic House majority decided on the eve of this Nov. 2, even if it's clear they don't have the capacity to do more than whisper in the graveyard. Because even a President Hillary Clinton still could mean health care -- for millions who don't have it.
Jan Frel is an AlterNet staff writer.
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