I think this idea of Al Gore being “tainted” is right on the money (and what a wonderfully meaningful pun, that). But if Gore is tainted and Kerry is a flip-flopper, then Hillary Clinton is a ten-times ten times tainted back-flipping contortionist. From this perspective, Obama becomes the only option simply because he has no record to question and he’s not a big enough player to have attracted the really big, controversial money. But he has held public office, and as a Democrat that’s probably enough to call his integrity into question.
The central issue here is a hypocrisy. If you’re a Republican, you can simply admit to being beholden to every special interest–energy companies, defense contractors, the religious right. Everyone knows you’re beholden to these organizations, and it’s okay because your constituency thinks these are necessary, even good, things. Gasoline good. Defense good. God good. Take money from whomever you want because you’re on “our side.”
For Democrats, the calculus is a little different. If you take the broad view, it looks like the level of scrutiny is the same–half the people (the other half) hate your guts and assume you’re corrupt. This balances out on the other side with the left-leaning folks automatically hating the Republican candidates. So far, so good. But when you’re a Democrat, a significant portion of your own party feels the same way about you! Even the people who want to like you and feel like they have to vote for you (the other option being to not vote, or to throw your vote away on a Kucinich or a Nader) think you’re corrupt (because from the perspective of the left’s divided loyalties, you are).
The problem is, on the left we don’t have these institutions that we trust to speak for us. We tend not to go to church and we try not to work in great homogeneous numbers for world-dominating corporations. We tend to distrust and reject “the system” because it represents a concentration of power, because it seems to embrace and embody the baser interests of the mediocre, mooing masses. By wishing for something better, and actually holding out for it, we sacrifice the present for the idealized future. By contrast, the Republicans look like video game-fueled instant gratification junkies. They see a country they want to bomb back to the stone age and they mutherfuckin’ bomb it back there–better to never ask forgiveness than to ask permission, after all. And the constituency? As long as you can make it look like you’re “winning,” and cook all the books to make the economy look stable (a junk bond-trading coke-addict’s economy looks stable until the Amex bill shows up) they’re right behind you.
The closest we on the left have come to an alternative to this was Howard Dean. Say whatever else you want, Dean made a genuine effort to mobilized a grassroots (albeit high-tech) campaign. He cratered, of course, and then, even worse, sold out to “the man” (the party), and we could spend an entire blog debating the hows and whys and what-fors of that. But the point is, it could be done. It almost was. And from that perspective–the hope that it is possible to run a clean campaign, not beholden to powerful special interests–the political left is just as corrupt as the right for not holding itself to the same standards as its constituency.