Archive for Sunday, June 11, 2006

Flirtation with Gore should worry Democrats

June 11, 2006


Pfff! It was gone before you noticed it. But there was a brief Al Gore boomlet in the past few weeks, pretty much snuffed out by his own avowal that he's probably not going to seek the presidency in 2008. Yet unlike other political boomlets of the past (and future), this one had a meaning. For Democrats, it was sobering.

Because for a short time this spring, some Democrats were speaking seriously about renominating Mr. Gore, who has the killer resume the Democrats seek, if not the killer instinct they think they need. He was a member of the House, a senator, a two-term vice president. He is a legitimate intellectual, an environmentalist and, now, a successful filmmaker. He is the heir to a tradition of Tennessee liberalism that connects the party to a region it needs and a creed it reveres.

Why the Gore boomlet, and why is it important?

The Gore boomlet, which coincided with the release of his film, "An Inconvenient Truth," conveyed the inconvenient truth that the Democrats are woefully weak, even as they seek to capture the White House from a party that itself is woefully weak right now.

Which is why so many Democratic insiders, money people and Hollywood figures began looking anew at Mr. Gore this spring. Two phrases popped up among them. The first was motivating: unfinished business. Democrats still believe they won the contested 2000 election, and they still want redemption.

The second phrase was as uncomfortable as it was beguiling: the Nixon factor. Richard M. Nixon was a young two-term vice president who served in the House and Senate and then lost a presidential election that was razor-close to an inexperienced candidate who party elders thought he should have shellacked. He reappeared eight years later as the GOP's best hope and won the 1968 election. Mr. Gore trumps the Nixon factor. He doesn't have the disadvantage of Nixon's 1962 gubernatorial loss in California, which made him a bitter and ridiculed figure.

Mr. Gore - tanned, rested and ready in the old Nixon way - has advantages not possessed by many of his putative rivals in the party. He was against the war in Iraq as early or earlier than anyone else in the Democratic field.

That is consistent with the profile that he has and his rivals do not: being ahead of his time. Commentators can joke about his role with the Internet, but they cannot contest the notion that Mr. Gore was the first mainstream politician to recognize its potential. His new film about global warming only underlines this theme. Mr. Gore was there first - and if not first, then years before any other conventional political figure.

Mr. Gore is also the personification of what the Democrats believe is their winning card in 2008. He is not George W. Bush.

Indeed, of all the people on Earth who are not Mr. Bush, Mr. Gore is the leading claimant to the title. Just by showing up, he prompts voters to wonder what a Gore presidency would have been like, what could have gone differently in the world and the White House.

Then there is the experience factor. Mr. Gore has experience no rival in his party remotely possesses. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, of New York, is completing her first term in the Senate and has no foreign-policy experience. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., of Delaware, has foreign-policy experience as a result of his long service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but he lacks discipline and grounding; he resembles nothing so much as an electric wood sander stuck in the "on" position. Sen. Russ Feingold, of Wisconsin, may be too liberal. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, of Connecticut, lacks serious-mindedness. Former Gov. Mark Warner, of Virginia, lacks name recognition.

Two other candidates bear consideration. Mr. Gore's defeat is farther in the past than that of Sen. John F. Kerry, of Massachusetts, and thus party resentments - never a small factor in Democratic politics - are less sharp than the ones Mr. Gore inspires. Mr. Kerry's 2004 running mate, former Sen. John Edwards, of North Carolina, has been traveling widely and has been appealing to labor audiences, but there remains skepticism that he could prevail in a general election.

Now to the final factor: money. Mr. Gore could raise more of it, and faster, than any of the other candidates. He's capable of raising more than $10 million in a week's time over the Internet. He knows more people with more money than any Democratic politician ... except for Bill Clinton.

This is not a brief supporting a Gore candidacy; his political weaknesses are well known, and they include the uncanny ability of rousing Republicans to an enthusiastic fighting trim. Instead, this is an argument intended to outline why so many Democrats looked Mr. Gore's way so quickly and so longingly this spring. In short, he has assets his rivals lack, and the combination of those assets only serves to underline the weakness of those other Democrats.

Chances are Mr. Gore won't run for president after all. Last week he spoke of the "internal shifting of gears" and, on the ABC News show "This Week," said: "I can't imagine any circumstances in which I would become a candidate again. I've found other ways to serve. I'm enjoying them."

It's probably prudent to take him at his word. But for members of his party, it may be prudent to take him - and the boomlet that has already waned - as a signal that even though President Bush's approval ratings hang around the temperature required to freeze water, the Democrats' chances are not too hot right now. If Mr. Gore is cool, then so are the Democrats' prospects.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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