Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean for President for the same reason that so many other Democrats have: He wanted to be where the action is in his party. The man who while carrying the Democratic banner in 2000 won the most votes for President said as much when he announced his decision at a Harlem event, declaring, “Howard Dean really is the only candidate who has been able to inspire at the grassroots level all over this country the kind of passion and enthusiasm for democracy and change and transformation of America that we need in this country. We need to remake the Democratic Party, we need to remake America, we need to take it back on behalf of the people of this country.”
The former Vice President went on to chide other candidates for piling on Dean in increasingly desperate attempts to stall the momentum of a candidate who, polls suggest, is positioned to sweep not just the first primary state of New Hampshire but the critical contests that follow in the late winter dash for delegates. But Gore actually did a little piling on of his own. That remark about Dean being the “only candidate” able to inspire passion cut to the heart of what ails the candidacies of Joe Lieberman, John Kerry and Dick Gephardt–with whom Gore has longer and better relations than with the former Vermont governor, who made noises about opposing him for the 2000 nomination.
Those other candidates, and their amen corner in a Washington press corps that still can’t quite accept that the Dean insurgency is for real, struggled mightily to come up with a spin that would allow them to dismiss the Gore intervention. But their attempts to reduce his decision to crass calculation missed the fact that Dean and Gore have been talking, and finding common ground, for months. Perhaps there is some truth to the claim that Gore’s move is calculated to improve his standing with the party cadres that adore Dean in order to position himself for a 2008 race, or even that he is intriguing against Bill and Hillary Clinton’s none-too-subtle encouragement of retired Gen. Wesley Clark’s candidacy. But the word among former aides who remain close to Gore is that the nation’s “geek in chief” believes, as many veteran Democrats do, that the Dean camp is securing the party’s future by harnessing the power of the Internet and other new technologies for political good. Gore is still dazzled by the fact that MoveOn.org events in which he has participated in recent months have drawn huge and enthusiastic crowds on short notice, and he is convinced the tech-savvy Dean campaign has the potential to translate the MoveOn magic into a November 2004 force to be reckoned with.
And Gore, openly critical of advisers who counseled ideological and stylistic caution in 2000, is now closer to Dean on the issues than the talking heads recognize. The former Veep’s public criticisms of the war on Iraq, the Patriot Act and the Bush Administration’s economic policies match the tone and content of Dean’s campaign far more than they do those of Lieberman or Gephardt.
But isn’t Gore just a blast from the party’s best-forgotten past, a sour SoreLoserman for Bill O’Reilly to kick around? That may be how Washington sees it, but Dean has been around the country enough to know that Gore is still greeted with rock concert roars at state Democratic conventions and Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners. Gore’s backing in Iowa, where he beat Bill Bradley 2 to 1 in the 2000 caucuses, could tip the state to Dean, who’s now in a tight contest there with Gephardt. And in early-primary states with substantial African-American populations, such as South Carolina and Michigan, Dean gains from association with a man who is seen by black voters as having been robbed of the presidency when the Supreme Court blocked the Florida recount. Gore is well aware that the Vermonter’s biggest applause line is a promise that “this time the person with the most votes is going to the White House.”
Other candidates may talk about putting the 2000 race behind the party, but Dean continues to surf the anger over Florida better than any candidate except Al Sharpton. No coincidence, then, that Gore announced his support for Dean on December 9, the third anniversary of the day the Supreme Court halted the final recount. It is fair to argue that if nominated, Dean will have to move beyond visceral anger at how Bush became President and what he’s done with the office. But as he moves to secure the nomination, that anger remains a big part of his appeal to Democrats. Just ask Al Gore.