History is not on Al Gore's side. The current vice president seeks to become just the third occupant of that office in 165 years to succeed the president under whom he has served by winning election to the White House on his own. In 1836 Martin Van Buren was elected to succeed President Andrew Jackson. In 1988, after eight years in office, Ronald Reagan remained enduringly popular with his fellow Americans and, with the Gipper's strong backing, his vice president, George Bush was elected president.
It could be said of the 1988 campaign that George Bush won Ronald Reagan's third term. Today not even the most partisan of Democrats are arguing that in 2000 Al Gore can achieve victory by winning Bill Clinton's third term. Even if he were constitutionally eligible to run again, Clinton in 2000, unlike Reagan in 1988, would be nobody's favorite to win his own third term.
Consider the latest bad news for the Democrats from California, with its 54 electoral votes. Recall that in 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton had become the first Democratic presidential nominee since LBJ in 1964 to carry California. Consider, too, that George Bush and Bob Dole both lost the Golden State to Clinton by the identical landslide margin of 13 percent.
According to the Public Policy Institute of California's recently released survey of 1,585 voters there, Clinton is today personally unpopular in that battleground state. Voters were asked which of the following statements was closest to their own view of Clinton: (A) I like Clinton, and I like his policies; (B) I like Clinton, but I dislike his policies; (C) I dislike Clinton, but I like his policies; (D) I dislike Clinton, and I dislike his policies.
Given the overwhelming positive economic news, not surprisingly, six out of 10 Californians said that they like Clinton's policies. In the survey, one out of three answered that he liked both Clinton and his policies (Statement A), while one out of four liked Clinton's policies but disliked Mr. Clinton himself (Statement C).
The '92 Bush, '96 Dole and 2000 GOP votes are found in the 36 percent of the poll's respondents who selected Statement D -- dislike of Clinton and dislike of his policies. An eccentric 3 percent chose Statement B, liking Clinton but disliking his policies.
Yes, six out of 10 California voters do like the Clinton policies. But at the same time, six out of 10 also dislike the president personally. Contrast this with Reagan, whose policies in his second term, in response to similar questions, won the approval of only 50 percent of voters. But the problem Democrats could never overcome against the Gipper was that seven out of 10 American voters just plain liked Ronald Reagan personally.
In the same survey, Al Gore now trails Texas Gov. George W. Bush by 49 percent to 44 percent in California. As expected, against Bush, Gore overwhelmingly wins the support of those who like both Clinton and Clinton's policies. By an even bigger margin, Bush sweeps among Californians who dislike both the Democratic president and his policies. The political pothole confronting Gore is that he's now winning just 45 percent of those ambivalent California voters who like the Clinton policies but who do not like Clinton personally. Character trumps competence.
Nor could Gore, even if he wanted to, publicly identify with the Clinton policies while discreetly distancing himself from the Clinton of whom voters have grown increasingly weary. Neither would it be smart politics. In the tightening two-way race for the Democratic nomination against former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, Gore owes his current lead to his support among Clinton's own most loyal constituencies: black voters and blue-collar workers. Gore has to manage to be different from but not disloyal to Clinton, independent but not ungrateful.
Gore must admit that his candidacy and his campaign up to now are failures. He has spent months and millions introducing himself to the electorate after which he now finds himself with the highest ever negative ratings of his career. He is being urged by some to go after Bradley to spotlight the former senator's own flip-flops on ethanol and school vouchers. That could hurt Bradley, but it will not help Gore improve his own low favorable standing with the voters.
Gore has to confront the unhappy truth that his president, the man who "likes" him and whose support Gore most needs to win his party's presidential nomination, is no longer liked by most of the voters.