- The Washington Times - Monday, April 22, 2002

A funny thing happened to Al Gore just before he jumped back into the political arena last week for what would be his third try for the presidency: He was plummeting in the polls.
While Bill Clinton's former vice president was sharpening a scathing political attack on President Bush's domestic policies, which he delivered with great gusto to a wildly enthusiastic Democratic crowd in Orlando, Fla., his support in the party was fading faster than the Cheshire cat in "Alice in Wonderland."
Most of the political reporters here flocked to Orlando to hear the famously mercurial Mr. Gore deliver what his top aides promised would be a fierce denunciation of Mr. Bush. And their gushing stories reported that the former presidential candidate was not only back but at the top of his game.
What most of their stories didn't tell their readers is that Mr. Gore has been losing the support of a lot of Democrats who are looking for a fresh face to challenge Mr. Bush in 2004. And for many of them, shave or no shave, Mr. Gore's face isn't it.
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, conducted April 5-7, asked Democratic voters this question: "Do you want Al Gore to run for president in 2004, or not?" Surprisingly, 48 percent said no, and 43 percent said yes. This was in sharp contrast to an identical poll taken last August when 65 percent of Democrats said yes and 31 percent said no.
Worse, Mr. Gore received less than a third of his party's vote, 32 percent, when a nationwide Yankelovich poll for CNN/Time Magazine, taken April 10-11, asked Democrats whom they would vote for if they had to choose a Democratic nominee today.
Notably, nearly 50 percent named some other Democrat, with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton coming in second with 16 percent. A similar presidential preference survey by John Zogby at the end of March showed a second-place Mrs. Clinton polling 20 percent to Mr. Gore's 33 percent.
Mr. Gore's dismal polls suggest his disappearance from the political stage and his party's leadership ranks for the past year or so has hurt his standing among the rank-and-file and that the race for the Democratic presidential nomination is wide open.
But who among his potential rivals can fill the leadership void that now exists in the party?
Mrs. Clinton an ultraliberal in the McGovern, Mondale and Dukakis mold who has called for repealing the Bush tax cuts, has said she will not run, preferring to get a first term under her belt before trying for higher office.
The rest of the cast Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman all have one common weakness: They are creatures of Washington in a political era when the electorate has increasingly looked to outsiders, particularly successful governors who can come and clean up the mess.
But the Democrats are also beset by another problem: Their party's inability to craft a workable, marketable agenda. Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO's political director, has been telling Democratic audiences that if the party has an agenda, then he hasn't seen it yet. For example:
Democrats complain that Mr. Bush's plan to reform Social Security will destroy it. But they have yet to introduce a leadership plan of their own to save the program from insolvency and give workers a better return on their payroll taxes than the measly 1 percent to 2 percent that most future retirees will get under the present system.
Messrs. Gore, Daschle, Gephardt and the others routinely condemn Mr. Bush's tax cuts, charging they are emptying the Treasury, leaving no money to spend on anything else (despite the $2 trillion-plus in taxes that continue to flow into Washington each year). But none has dared to propose that the tax cuts should be repealed or delayed.
They rail against the wartime deficits and call for "fiscal responsibility" but they have not come forward with any plan to restrain spending. Indeed, the Democratic budget plan in the Senate is a virtual carbon copy of Mr. Bush's budget in its macro numbers.
Iraq, Venezuela and other countries are turning the screws on oil prices to hurt the U.S. economy, but the Daschle Democrats are blocking the administration's efforts to explore new sources of energy to make America less dependent on foreign oil.
Mr. Gore told Democrats who gathered in Orlando that "America's economy is suffering unnecessarily." But he said nothing about attempts by Senate Democrats to kill Mr. Bush's trade-authorization bill. This is the same trade negotiating authority sought by Mr. Clinton that will open up new markets for American industry and farm products that will create new jobs and strengthen our economy.
The oldest and truest axiom in American politics says you can't beat something with nothing. Right now the Democrats do not have an agenda to run on. And judging from this month's polls, they do not have a viable candidate, either.

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