Ballot Box

Stop This Train

Who decides this election—you or Al Gore?

What was that again about counting every vote?

Three years ago, Al Gore, trailing in the Florida recount, urged the nation to wait until all the votes were tallied. “There are some who would have us bring this election to the fastest conclusion possible. I have a different view,” Gore pleaded.

Gore’s view was that the urge to unite and win must never shortcut the electorate’s verdict. “What is at stake is more important than who wins the presidency,” he argued. “What is at stake is the integrity of our democracy, making sure that the will of the American people is expressed and accurately received.”

That will must be expressed “without any intervening interference,” Gore insisted. Elections should be determined “by the votes cast by the people, not by politicians.”

That was then. This is now.

Now the presidential candidate Gore prefers is ahead. Not in the vote count—the first votes haven’t been cast yet—but in Democratic polls and money. In Iowa, Howard Dean leads his nearest competitor by eight points. In New Hampshire, he leads by 14 points to 25 points. Financially, he’s blowing the field away. He has already renounced matching funds, allowing him to ignore the customary spending caps and outspend his opponents with impunity in the early primaries.

Should Democrats fight it out and see who wins? Not if Gore has his way. “Democracy is a team sport,” he declared as he endorsed Dean in Harlem this morning. “All of us need to get behind the strongest candidate.”

Who decided Dean was the strongest candidate? Not the voters: They haven’t voted. Not the polls, either: They’ve shown Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, and Wesley Clark scoring better than Dean in hypothetical match-ups with President Bush. The person who anointed Dean the strongest candidate is the same intervening politician who complained three years ago about intervening politicians.

“I respect the prerogative of the voters in caucuses and in the primaries, and I’m just one person,” Gore allowed in Harlem. Please. If Gore were an ordinary person, he and the national press corps wouldn’t have been there. The whole point of the endorsement was, in the words of Gore’s former campaign manager, to “lock down” the nomination for Dean.

No ordinary person would presume to tell other presidential candidates to stop criticizing Dean. But Gore did. He instructed Democrats to “speak no ill” of anyone in their party. “We can’t afford to be divided,” he said. Why did Gore deliver that message this morning? Because tonight Dean’s rivals will get their last chance to confront him in a debate until nearly a month from now, at which point the Iowa caucuses will be just two weeks away. Gore is trying to stop anyone from stopping Dean.

In case anyone missed the point, Dean underscored it. He thanked Gore “particularly [for] those words that said that the 11th Commandment now also ought to apply to Democrats. As you know, I’ve been picking buckshot out of my rear end in some of these debates, and we’re going up to New Hampshire tonight and see if I do some more.”

It’s one thing to endorse a candidate. It’s another to suggest that criticism of that candidate undermines your party—particularly when you’ve got such stature, as the party’s most recent presidential nominee, that no other candidate can afford to rebuke you.

“This campaign is not about Howard Dean going to the White House. This campaign is about us going to the White House, all of us,” Dean told the crowd. “We will open the doors to the White House and let the American people back in.” That’s great, Howard. We’d love to go to the White House. We’d just like to go to the polls first.