Al Gore seems to have returned from his sullen sabbatical, although one can never be sure—ever since the election, the former vice president has frustrated many of his strongest supporters with his furtive testiness, his unwillingness to discuss future plans. But Gore has shaved his beard, shed poundage, and promised to campaign and raise money for Democrats who are running for Congress this year. His wife, Tipper, decided not to run for the United States Senate, a race that might have proved embarrassing, to say the least. These winks and wrigglings may signal another attempt to run for president, which is a source of great consternation among Democrats—more precisely, among those Democrats who play at politics for a living and who tend to regard their Gore problem every bit as seriously as their Clinton problem. (Gore remains fairly popular on the Democratic “street,” a consequence of name recognition and the belief that he was robbed in 2000 and deserves another chance.)
The Democrats’ Gore problem is a simple one: Despite winning a bare majority of the popular vote, he was a dreadful candidate in 2000, who somehow managed to turn eight years of peace and prosperity into an electoral burden. He is a smug, stubborn, and aloof human being. He will clutter the race in 2004, suck money from other candidates, force some interesting possibilities from the field, run another awkward, tired faux-populist campaign and, if nominated, he will lose, more decisively this time, to George W. Bush. This critique seems reasonable enough in many of its particulars, but not in its conclusion—that life would be a lot simpler if Gore would just go away. Quite the contrary, Democrats should nurture his ambition and cherish his ineptitude.
Professional politicians hate messy primaries. The received wisdom is that a candidate who has to fight for the nomination is inevitably weakened. A brawl entertains the press, but it divides the party and wastes lots of money, which then has to be re-raised for the general election. All of which is true, but incomplete: A good scrap can toughen a nominee, as the McCain challenge helped prepare George W. Bush for the general election in 2000. Any Democrat who defeats Gore in the 2004 primaries will gain stature and notoriety as a result (and he or she will need all the stature he or she can get, facing an incumbent president in November).
Given Gore’s performance last time, he certainly looms as a convenient straw man. His candidacy ranks with Dukakis’ in 1988 as the worst in modern memory—in fact, the two campaigns had identical themes and flaws: Competence was promised by incompetent candidates. (George McGovern and Walter Mondale, who lost their presidential races far more convincingly, at least were honorable in their support of unpopular proposals: the acceptance of defeat in Vietnam and the need for fiscal responsibility, respectively.) Come to think of it, Dukakis also was pretty honorable—if inept—in his opposition to the death penalty and his painful literalism about the First Amendment. And Gore? He ran a craven campaign. He lacked the gumption to promote his visionary environmentalism (it withered down to support for tapping the national petroleum reserve to lower gas prices). He lacked the skill to praise Clinton where praise was due, and to distance himself where distance was necessary. In the debates, he lacked the honor to stand by another position that was tactically questionable but morally sound—gun control.
The moment remains indelible. Bush was asked what could be done to prevent school shootings, like the massacre at Columbine High School. He rambled, lost and a bit embarrassed. “Listen, we’ve got gun laws … There seems to be a lot of preoccupation on—not certainly only in this debate, but just in general—on law. But there’s a larger law. Love your neighbor as you would like to be loved yourself.”
Here is Gore’s response: “I also believe in the Golden Rule. And I agree with a lot of the other things the governor has said.”
Eventually—and with disgraceful equanimity—Gore got around to mentioning that he disagreed with Bush on some of the particulars when it came to gun control. He may have won the hunting states of Pennsylvania and Michigan with that, but he lost his soul—and maybe the election, too. Because there’s a larger truth to presidential campaigns: The public wants to know if a human being lurks beneath the candidate. Gore, stiff and synthetic and multifarious—a lion, the first debate; a lamb, the second; a pretzel, the third—never seemed reliable enough to be president (indeed, he seemed shiftier than Willie, if not so slick).
I suspect—well, I hope—that McCain was the avatar of a new passage in American politics: The public has come to understand what market-tested language sounds like and will not trust a consultant-created android. Happily, though, there is an easy and honorable way to prove your humanity: Take an inconvenient position—emphasize it, defend it, be comfortable with it. Gore never seemed very comfortable even when he took convenient positions (perhaps because he was smart enough to realize how spineless it all was). He followed his focus groups off a cliff.
And now? Gore’s few public statements have been obvious—supporting Bush in Afghanistan—and uninteresting. He hasn’t had much to say about Bush’s environmental policy (even though Bush scrapped the Clinton administration’s deal with Detroit—negotiated by Gore—to produce hybrid automobiles, which get 70 to 80 miles per gallon), or about Bush’s tax policy or about Bush’s abandonment of free trade.
It is possible, of course, that yet another new Gore will materialize—a looser, more gracious Gore, one with the courage of his intelligence. If so, the Democrats can only benefit from it. If not, the rest of us will have the pleasure of watching some other candidate become a hero in the primaries. Either way, it sounds great to me. Run, Al, run.