“Debacle 2002” is already in reruns but has been replaced by a new dramatic series called “Zero 4,” which chronicles some familiar characters and a few new faces running for President. Despite the tired premise, the show opened with a punchy plot twist–Al Gore is running to the left. He attacks the popular President’s strategy for the faltering economy, even criticizes the Bush plans for war in Iraq. Then Gore (last seen in “The Mis-Making of a President”) announces he’s for single-payer national health insurance–the leftish idea he and ex-Prez mentor Clinton used to scorn. What’s going on here?

This time Gore promises he’ll “speak from the heart and let the chips fall where they may.” The mixed metaphor is unfortunate, but his story line sounds promising and adds suspense. What will the other candidates make of Al’s surprising foray? Move left themselves, or attack him as a softheaded liberal (the way Gore attacked Bill Bradley back in 2000)? Do the media pick up the “new Al Gore” story line, or ridicule it? Or possibly this is actually the “old” Al Gore we used to know in his political youth and Earth in the Balance days–slightly nerdy but admirably intense, willing to champion the new, untested policy idea. Stay tuned. If Americans cared as intensely about politics as they do about TV shows, we’d have a robust democracy.

Al Gore’s makeover (assuming he sustains it and does run) has a bittersweet subtext of what might have been. If he had displayed genuine strokes of boldness two years ago, he would be the President. The Clinton White House, with Gore in full accord, missed its great window of opportunity in the run-up to 2000. Instead of proudly clutching their hard-won budget surpluses, they should have launched new ideas for spending the money on people–healthcare was the most obvious–as Democrats are expected to do. That would have given Gore real meat to run on. Instead, he talked about the “lockbox,” while Bush talked about tax cuts. And Gore still got more votes.

The winter book has Gore as odds-on favorite for the ’04 nomination and the recent refurbishings look like a smart play–solidifying his positive standing among the rank-and-file Dems, while awaiting the events that will determine whether he, or anyone, can beat GWB. So the rest of the pack will have to adjust to Gore, one direction or the other (Vermont’s Howard Dean was out front on healthcare and may be able to take credit for Albert’s conversion). In other words, Gore has injected a little new energy and possible suspense. Before he loses his nerve and reverts to caution, progressive activists should jump-start their own campaign toward insuring that universal health coverage is endorsed by the 2004 party platform. The Dems’ platforms are empty because they belong entirely to the insiders, not to the folks. But this is a ripe chance to intrude and a smart way to establish Al Gore’s sincerity.