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.
Moreover, Gore's tactical retreat was all-too consistent with his past habit of spouting profound, dramatic and incautious calls to action and then acting with caution and political expedience. Consider, as an example, his 1992 cri de cœur, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. Gore wrote, "I have come to believe that we must take bold and unequivocal action: we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization." He added, "We must all become partners in a bold effort to change the very foundation of our civilization." Gore has rarely, if ever, behaved in full accordance with these noble principles–and he has particularly not done so in the me-no-speak months since January. Gore, a smart fellow of many interests, warrants partial credit for occasionally professing such sentiments. But his repeated failure to live up to his own standards renders him even more disappointing, unpersuasive and uninspiring than the average politician.
On a cosmic-karma level, Gore may deserve the nomination. He did bag 500,000 more popular votes than Bush, and were it not for the butterfly ballot foul-up, he would have taken Florida–with or without recounts. In the eyes of most Democratic voters, Gore was screwed out of the presidency.
Too bad. The Democratic Party would be stupid to place itself once again in the hands of a man who has more than once indicated he does not know how to mount an effective national campaign. His 2000 effort was a horrendous enterprise. His debate performances were lousy. He handed the Republicans the material they needed to depict him as a shifty prevaricator. His campaign apparatus was weak–led for a while by a lobbyist mired in ethics troubles and loaded with corporate consultants who were not believable as foot soldiers in a supposed crusade against the powerful. Then, when it counted most, Gore muffed his strategy in Florida–initially instructing grassroots supporters not to raise a fuss, while his too-clever-by-half lawyers attempted to cherry-pick recounts and declined to question the fairness of the vote throughout the state.
Above all, Gore had tremendous difficulty conveying a sense of himself and his values. "Gore's biggest problem in the campaign was Gore," says a Democratic consultant who has worked closely with him. "If Gore solved the Gore problem he would be in good standing for 2004." But what's the matter with Gore, and can he be fixed? "I don't know, and, worse, he and his advisers don't know, and that's the problem. Gore has engendered a mixed personal reaction from people for a long time, and the Gore team has never figured out why. If you cannot do the diagnosis, you cannot come up with the right prescription." When pressed for explanations of the "Gore problem," this Gore-watcher tosses out several possibilities: "There's the striving thing. People think he wants it too much. In exit polls, twice as many people thought Gore would say anything to get elected as those who thought Bush would. Another part of the problem is that Gore is more comfortable with ideas than people, and that's a trait not honored by the American public. And there's something weird about him. In person, he is low-key, very engaging, funny, thoughtful, great to be around. Place him in front of an audience and it's like a switch flips in his head." In fact, there is not a Gore problem but a set of Gore problems.
Gore, alas, will still be Gore in 2004. And he cannot argue that he has not had the time to work out his kinks. The 2000 race was his second presidential endeavor (and he twice campaigned as Clinton's sidekick). In 1988 he sought the White House as a brash DLCer and son of the South–no fight-the-power populist then. That campaign was an embarrassing bust. Which means Gore has mounted two awful White House bids–one as a conservative Democrat, the other as a populist Democrat. Why give him a third swing? And what's Gore going to run as next time?
Here's more cause to wish for a longer Gore sabbatical: Joe Lieberman. There has been talk in Democratic political circles that if Gore runs again, he will announce early on that Lieberman will be his running mate, and the two will campaign as a duo in the primaries. But since the last election, Lieberman has calculatedly distanced himself from the Gore 2000 campaign message, professing that he was never entirely in sync with Gore's pseudopopulist themes. So what sort of team would they make in 2004? A reconstituted Gore-Lieberman ticket–with Lieberman doing a push-me/pull-you act–would be weaker than the original version.
Calling on Gore to give it a rest does not mean there are a host of better options for the Democrats. But Gore has had his opportunities. Over many years, he has barely improved as a candidate. And he keeps failing to show that his actions and commitments are firmly tethered to his purported beliefs. Perhaps four years as a crusading university president, an environmental advocate, an unofficial ambassador for social justice in the Third World or some such would convince us that there is indeed a new-and-improved Gore who deserves one more shot. But that's not the man currently pondering a comeback campaign. Yes, if we look at history, candidates who have been denied the White House under similar circumstances have triumphed in subsequent elections. Nevertheless, Gore's liabilities as a politician remain clearer than his assets. In his concession speech–one of the finest moments of his dismal campaign, which should tell us something–a good-humored Gore said, "It's time for me to go." It's still that time.