Al, Don't Run
Al Gore is back. Sort of. But in his irritating I'm-my-own-man-but-it's-sure-hard-to-get-a-fix-on-me way. After months of silence--as George W. Bush passed a tax cut Gore dubbed a "risky scheme," rolled back workplace and environmental protections Gore once championed and dropped a Texas-size turd on the global warming accord Gore helped negotiate--Gore this summer re-emerged ever so gently. He hosted a bipartisan political training seminar in Nashville, hired fundraisers, agreed to campaign for a Democrat in New Jersey and accepted an invitation to speak to Iowa Democrats in late September--moves that triggered speculation that he was prepping for another White House try. But Gore and his camp issued no clear-cut statement of intent. A cautious Gore continued to duck the vital policy tussles of Washington. And there was the Beard: facial hair that launched a thousand psychoquips. A manifestation of midlife crisis? Part of a never-ending quest for alpha-male status? More evidence he's not comfortable (literally) in his own skin? Whatever the reason for the whiskers--this is politics at its most superficial--their appearance reinforced the suspicions of those who have wondered whether Al Gore is at ease with Al Gore.
Now that Gore has returned to the stage--and partly because of the Gore-ish way he staged his return--it's an appropriate time to issue a heartfelt plea: Al, don't do it! Spare us another Gore campaign. Please, don't run.
Virtually the entire Democratic Party establishment wishes Gore were gone. "If you did a poll among Democratic members of Congress and state committee chairs, you'd be hard pressed to find a single one who would like Gore to be the nominee," notes a Democratic pollster who has worked for Gore. Yet none of the honchos are saying so publicly. After all, Gore is still popular with some rank-and-file Democrats seeking revenge in 2004, and the guy may end up with the presidential nomination again. But this sequel ought to be stopped before it gets too far into production.
It's not that the Democratic Party should be de-Gored because the party elites are against him. Their motivation is values-free. They're bitter because Gore blew it, lost them the White House when peace and prosperity reigned. Sure, there was Bill Clinton's sex-and-lies scandal to handle. But in their view, Gore should have been able to finesse the Clinton issue and coast to victory, especially since he faced an all-hat-no-cattle right-wing nincompoop. Well, even elites can be right once in a while. But the reason to wish for a Gore-less race in 2004 extends far beyond the he's-a-loser analysis of the party chieftains.
Gore has an authenticity problem--more on substance than personality--and it's a drag on the Democratic Party. Actually, it embodies much of the Democratic Party. At the Democratic convention last year, Gore asserted that he was seeking the presidency because of his fierce desire to protect common citizens from corporate interests. As corporate lobbyists sipped cocktails and watched from their skyboxes, Gore declared, "So often powerful forces and powerful interests stand in your way.... As President, I'll stand up to them and I'll stand up for you." He further observed, "Sometimes you have to choose to do what's difficult or unpopular. Sometimes, you have to be willing to spend your popularity in order to pick the hard right over the easy wrong."
But did anyone believe that Gore--who a year earlier was siding with pharmaceutical companies in their battle against the government of South Africa, which was then crafting laws to lower the cost of HIV/AIDS treatments--was a populist at heart, willing to put the public interest ahead of his popularity and his campaign-finance interests? He had not begun his 2000 bid as a foe of the powerful. He had first pitched himself as the candidate of "pragmatic idealism." Or was it "idealistic pragmatism"? (Whichever--that was his silly and short-lasting retort to George W. Bush's "compassionate conservative" shtick.) Yet come desperation time, Gore became a ferocious advocate of common folk. And once again the party was saddled with a temporary populist, not a genuine one who could convince a large majority of working Americans that the Democratic Party cared more about them than for its soft-money corporate contributors. For the Democrats to differentiate themselves from the Republicans--especially in the Bush II "Corporations 'R' Us" years--they will need a candidate who can convincingly argue the people-versus-the-powerful line.
Yet since the election, Gore has done nothing to prove he took his populist rhetoric seriously. While Washington burned, Gore fiddled. Instead of battling the Bush corporatists, he held seminars with David Letterman and others at Columbia University. He walked away from the center-left political forces he had mobilized just as policy-making in Washington took a serious and ugly swerve. Not that he should have stuck around as Sour Grapes Al, reminding the public constantly that he was the real President. But Gore need not have whined about the Florida results to have played a significant role in encouraging Democrats in and out of Congress to fight Bush's tax cut and environmental smack-downs. Gore's I-want-to-be-alone routine may have been good for his future political career, but it indicated he was not, deep down, interested in combating the powerful.