It is difficult to speculate about the politics of global warming without speculating about former Vice President Al Gore. He says he's campaigning only against greenhouse gases these days, but as he basks in the success of his new movie, it's hard not to wonder whether the man who came so close to the presidency wants to take another shot.
But there's a more logical job for Gore to pursue, a job that makes no sense until you think about it. It's a job that would give him the power to do something about global warming, along with other major issues close to his heart, without highlighting his political deficiencies. It's a job where it helps to be wonkish, and doesn't really hurt to be wooden. And it's a job he knows how to do - because he already did it for eight years.
Yes, Al Gore should run for vice president.
John Nance Garner famously said that the vice presidency wasn't worth a bucket of warm spit, and for Garner (who served under FDR) it probably wasn't. But it is now, a trend that began with one Albert Gore Jr.
Gore was one of President Bill Clinton's most trusted White House advisers, lunching with him every Tuesday, encouraging him to sign a controversial welfare reform bill, persuading him to bomb Serbia. Gore also oversaw the administration's environmental policies, launched a dorky but effective "reinventing government" campaign, and demolished Ross Perot in a free-trade debate. He was often described as the most powerful vice president in history.
And he was, until he was succeeded and supplanted by Dick Cheney, a former White House chief of staff, defense secretary and head of George W. Bush's vice presidential search committee. Cheney's control over Bush may be more myth than fact, but it's no myth that he wields unprecedented clout for a number two - on foreign policy, energy policy, just about every policy. Cheney has become a kind of chief operating officer for the federal government, pulling levers behind the scenes, working his Washington contacts. And Bush has never seen him as a threat, in large part because he's ruled out running for president himself.
That's a perfect model for Gore, a distinguished public servant with limited political skills. His most noted stumbles while in office were political stumbles - fund-raising follies such as collecting campaign cash at a Buddhist temple, his PR-deaf "no controlling legal authority" explanation of said follies, his over-the-top defense of Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and then his tortured efforts to distance himself from Clinton during his campaign.
The inconvenient truth is that as a politician, Gore has always been more successful in a supporting role. In the Senate, he was a visionary on environmental issues, nuclear proliferation and, yes, the Internet, which he never did claim he invented. And people forget that his addition to the ticket in 1992 helped jump-start the Clinton campaign. But Gore never seemed comfortable as a presidential candidate; he surrounded himself with consultants who deluged him with bad (Don't mention Clinton!), frivolous (Wear earth tones!) and conflicting advice. He ended up bringing three different demeanors to his three debates. He never talked about the environment and other issues close to his heart, and he never sounded as genuine as he did in his movie.
The reaction to Gore's movie has been impressive, but it doesn't change the fact that he misplayed a winning hand in 2000. He gives great lecture, but mediocre stump speech. And global warming isn't yet a central issue to build a presidential campaign around. On the other hand, it's ideal for a vice presidential candidate, suggesting a ticket ready to grapple with the challenges of the future.
The only problem with the Gore-for-VP scenario is that it's hard to imagine Gore going along with it. He never saw himself as a number two, and someone would have to convince him that number one is not in the cards.
But would it really be such an affront to his ego to assume Cheney's huge responsibilities? Couldn't he be convinced that it would help his party, his nation and his global warming crusade to provide elder-statesman heft for a more inspiring politician such as Illinois Sen. Barack Obama? History honors John Quincy Adams for his journey from the presidency to the House; why wouldn't it honor Gore for returning to his old job?
Of course, the current Democratic front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is a longtime Gore rival, and a new Clinton-Gore ticket is too far-fetched even for a thought experiment. But who knows? Maybe if Gore agreed to run with Obama or John Edwards or Mark Warner before the primaries, there would be a new Democratic front-runner.
That just might be reason enough for him to do it.