The media have heralded Al Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean as the Democratic Party establishment’s embrace of Dean’s candidacy, the golden moment the conservative Democratic leadership (!) threw out its inhibitions and accepted the people’s anointed crusader. The trouble is, Democratic Party stalwarts – correctly worried Dean’s candidacy will lead them to a landslide defeat – have had no change of heart. Al Gore’s attempt to move the Democratic Party leftward, by endorsing Howard Dean, is merely the latest whistle stop in his perpetual presidential campaign. Gore’s endorsement places him back in the limelight, gives him a chance to realign the Democratic Party further to the Left and sets him up to topple Hillary Clinton as the frontrunner in 2008.
Gore’s No Centrist, Even Among Democrats
Al Gore’s strategically timed endorsement does not – indeed cannot – represent an Entente Cordiale between antiwar activists and the New Democrats, because Gore no longer represents the Democratic Party’s center. The move instead consummates Gore’s steady march to the Left, begun four years ago.
Many believe Al Gore is finally showing his true colors with his recent emergence as an über-Progressive. Beginning his career as Representative of a conservative district in Tennessee, Gore built a record as a pro-gun, pro-life conservative during the Reagan years, on the orders of his political advisors. He again followed his advisors’ political advice during his 1988 presidential campaign. Dodging left-then-right, Al liberalized his position on social issues while presenting a hawkish Democratic foreign policy.
Even then, insiders mused that Gore had affected his centrist position for political gain, that the “responsible” Al was not the real Al. The late Senator Paul Simon, a Gore competitor in ’88, noted in his book Winners and Losers, “Al’s substantial abilities were clouded somewhat by charges of pandering and his shift in emphasis (to a muscular foreign policy – BJ) after Senator Sam Nunn made clear he would not become a candidate." Simon concluded, "My sense is that Al is still sorting out who he is and what life means to him” (p. 50).
Al would continue this self-denying sorting process for the next twelve years. Ascending to the Vice Presidency under Bill Clinton, Gore continued to hone his centrist bona fides, taking a keen interest in “reinventing government” and other Democratic Leadership Council causes. During the Clinton years, Gore would prominently defend NAFTA, GATT and welfare reform. He even floating the idea of investing Social Security funds in the stock market.
His centrist transgressions caught up with him when he finally burst forth from the Clintons’ political shadow to run his campaign in 2000. Forced further leftward than anticipated by Bill Bradley in the primaries, Gore never triangulated to capture the middle ground during the general election. Undoubtedly, the NAFTA advocate did so in part to stop the bleeding of Democratic voters to Ralph Nader. But calling the shots for the first time in a decade, Al ran for president as an unabashed leftist. And in 2000 that many say we began to see the real Al Gore.
Much to Bill Clinton’s chagrin, Gore made Bob Shrum’s class warfare rhetoric the lingua franca of his campaign. His wooden attempts to capture the Left’s congenital anger saw him robotically flailing his arms in union halls, assuring labor voters that the Left’s priorities would be rubberstamped during a Gore presidency, “I guaran-damn-tee it!” His efforts served only to alienate the center and cost him what should have been an easy election.
Since suspending his presidential ambitions last year, Gore has let his leftist id take over. At an August 7th speech sponsored by MoveOn.org, Gore all but accused the Bush Administration of complicity in 9/11. He said, “Two years ago yesterday . . . according to The Wall Street Journal, the president was apparently advised in specific language that al-Qaeda was going to hijack some airplanes to conduct a terrorist strike inside the U.S.” (Unfortunately for Gore, the first such report came in September 1998.) He has since accused Attorney General John Ashcroft of being guilty of "gross abuses of civil rights" and even called for the repeal of the USA Patriot Act, the most effective Homeland Security measure in American history, all the while denouncing Bush’s security policies as something "right out of George Orwell's 1984.” Again, apparently Gore has forgotten that as Vice President in the mid-90s, he pushed for many of these "Orwellian" measures to fight domestic terrorists. But in his recent speeches, many aver, we catch a glimpse of the true Gore, the one who wrote Earth in the Balance, the one who equated failure to recycle with the Holocaust. Freed from the pressures of running a public campaign, he’s let his leftist hair down. This is Al Gore at his most genuine: left-wing and out for blood. And he wants the Democratic Party to join him.
The Democratic Crack-Up
Although Gore no longer represents the centrist faction of the Democratic Party, the media are correct in saying there is a civil war brewing between the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and the party’s left-wing base. And Al Gore is in the midst of that fight, pushing the party leftward.
Interestingly, in his endorsement speech, Gore twice emphasized the need “to remake the Democratic Party.” When Bill Clinton took over the party in 1992, he took the party’s public image well to the right. No Democrat had campaigned on a platform of cutting taxes, supporting the death penalty and crafting a militaristic foreign policy since JFK (or at least George Wallace). With the exception of the post-Watergate election in 1976, itself a squeaker, Democrats had not been politically viable since George McGovern captured the party for the New Left 20 years before. Dick Morris’ brilliant “triangulation” strategy changed all that.
Gore’s endorsement of Dean is his statement on the matter: he’s had enough triangulating. In this war over the Democratic Party’s realignment, Al Gore finds himself to the left of his old boss and Senator Hillary Clinton. Although Hillary is a doctrinaire leftist with a radical pedigree, Hillary has learned a lot since trying to nationalize health care. She is triangulating herself these days, as demonstrated by her recent “hawkish” foreign policy. She and Bill hope to keep the party centrist in order to keep it electable. (Ironically, Al Gore reportedly objected to “Hillarycare” behind the scenes, complaining the move was too liberal.)
However, many, including Gore, believe political success will come about only if the party realigns to the Left. Gore has not forgotten that if a few hundred Floridian Greens had voted for him instead of Ralph Nader, he’d be president today. Many feel the Democratic Party must reclaim its radical activist core, which deserted it for the Green Party, in order to sure up its electoral future. And that means heading to McGovern territory: retreating from the War on Terror, ending Homeland Security, endorsing every form of cohabitation as equal to the nuclear family and repealing every tax cut since the ‘60s.
The prescription is perfectly disastrous. Al Gore garnered his much-ballyhooed popular vote total because most Americans were satiated by the economic prosperity created by Clinton’s capitulation to the Republican Congress. Al Gore believes he would have won if he had been far enough to the Left to attract the Greens, but Ralph Nader, for all the media’s hagiographic coverage, captured only a tiny, doctrinaire portion of the electorate; call it the Kucinich Bloc. Were it not for the prosperity Republican policies created, Gore would not have accumulated enough votes for Nader’s showing to look significant. Realigned as the party of leftist orthodoxy, the Democratic Party will return to the days of McGovern, Mondale and Dukakis; to the days Gore himself derided its “politics of retreat, complacency and doubt.” In other words, voters will consign this Democratic Party to permanent minority party status. With his endorsement of Howard Dean and calls for the party to adopt his own leftist ideology, Al Gore has moved his party one step closer to that fate.
Howard and Al "MoveOn"
Both Gore and Dean have been drinking from the same poisoned wells in recent months, cavorting with the hatemongers of MoveOn.org. Although polls showed Dean as the emerging frontrunner, it was his victory in MoveOn’s “virtual primary” (in which Dennis Kucinich came in second) that cemented his status. The same website ran interference for Gore in 2000, attempting to jam the Nader campaign’s communication lines in the waning days of the campaign. And it was MoveOn.org (and, pointedly, not any official party venue) that sponsored Al Gore's two most significant speeches, in which he derided Bush’s handling of Iraq and called for the repeal of the Patriot Act.
MoveOn has provided an enthusiastic audience as Gore allows his leftist convictions to finally come to the fore. Someone once said politics is the art of finding a crowd, getting in front of it and telling it what to do. Gore has found his crowd; it is at MoveOn.org rallies cheering Howard Dean. According to one of Gore’s associates, “When Gore gave a speech to MoveOn, he got 3,000 people there. There were times in the race when we couldn't get 3,000 people to turn up, and he was the nominee.”
For his part, Gore barely disguises his motivation. Howard Dean has captured the party base in a way Gore never could. Assured by endorsements from two huge public sector unions (AFSCME and SEIU), Gore is comfortable Dean has "critical mass" to win the nomination. And now Al Gore wants to share his spotlight. In his endorsement Tuesday morning, Gore noted that Dean “really is the only candidate who has been able to inspire at the grassroots level all over the country.” Translation: Dean’s a winner and leftist soulmate, and I want to come along for the photo-op. Yet there is more to the endorsement; there’s also a very personal reason for his actions: revenge.
Gore Strikes Back at the Clintons
“Clinton fatigue” played a major role in Gore's paper-thin loss in 2000. Although Clinton survived his scandal-ridden presidency, voters took out their frustrations by proxy on Gore; Gore became, in Chris Matthews’ words, “the bathtub ring” of the Clinton Administration. He has not forgotten, and his sense of cosmic justice will not allow him to suffer for Bill Clinton’s sins, while Hillary, sanctified by the same sins, waltzes to the presidency in 2008. Gore's endorsement of Dean could derail her campaign, perhaps alone worth the effort in his mind.
When Hillary runs in 2008, she can count on the support of most current party apparatchiks, leftover from her husband’s tenure. However, if Dean wins the nomination, he will kick the Clinton cadre out of the DNC, beginning with the famously inept Terry McAuliffe. This will realign the party to its traditional leftist core. Should Dean win the nomination but lose the general election (which seems likely), the 2008 presidential hopefuls will have to wrestle with a party establishment cast in the image of Howard Dean – and Al Gore. With new leadership, Hillary’s ascendancy to the nomination will be sidetracked, possibly interred. ( Indeed, the Clintons have set up alternate sources of funding in case of just such an event. ) And if Al Gore’s endorsement put that new party leadership in place, he will be in a position to collect these chits in 2008. And 2008 is the bottom line.
Al Gore was raised with a sworn duty. From his tender years, he was raised to do what Albert Gore Sr. could never do: become President of the United States. His father reportedly exercised inordinate emotional pressure on Gore to strive for the top prize, inducing a neurotic lust for power from Al’s childhood. Indeed, his mother canceled his boyhood violin lessons, telling the young Albert, “future world leaders do not play the violin.” He will never feel he has lived up to his duty until he sits in the Oval Office, even if that means facing down Hillary Clinton four years from now (and it will).
Gore is now following the playbook of another Vice President who narrowly lost (or perhaps legitimately won) the presidency, became widely reviled and was considered “washed up” by the following election cycle. This Vice President graciously endorsed and campaigned for his party’s nominee four years later – a man whose fiery rhetoric excited the party’s ideological base – racking up favors and goodwill throughout the party in the process. Then, he set about reinventing himself before capturing his party’s nomination, and then the White House. And Richard Nixon was elected to two terms in office.
How will Al Gore reinvent himself? His proposed leftist television network would be a good start. Having seen Howard Dean emerge from obscurity via the internet, Gore has learned the power of positive media. Like Dean, Gore is fascinated with technology and how to channel it to suit his political ends. In fact, the lone highlight of Gore’s stillborn campaign for the 2004 nomination was his appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” in which he effectively portrayed a living human being. Was it the real Al Gore? Gore himself probably doesn’t know. But the audience liked that guy a lot more than the version they had become accustomed to over the past ten years. Should Gore launch an avowedly left-wing TV network, his smiling face will be beamed into millions of homes everyday. In 2008, Hillary will have a Senate record to defend, but Gore will have only a blooper reel. In the meantime, he can carefully – electronically – manage his public image, neatly editing out all signs of stiffness, insincerity and well-bred arrogance.
Some would say a perpetual media campaign is a slender reed on which to hang a presidential campaign, but it has worked before. Ronald Reagan’s radio commentaries, newspaper columns and televised debates kept the ex-governor in the spotlight from 1974-1980. Gore could use a worse role model.
The Nixon analogy is not perfect; Nixon did not back Goldwater during the primaries, and an abysmal showing by Dean in '04 could backfire on Gore. Apparently, it's a chance Gore is willing to take. The bottom line is clear: If Howard Dean succeeds in the primaries then falters in the general election, the nation will get to see how effectively Al Gore can execute the Nixon playbook in 2008.