Ballot Box

You Have the Power

Why Al Gore was wrong to endorse Howard Dean.

The good thing about writing on the Internet is that your voice travels as fast as you can type. The bad thing is that you can type faster than you can think. Two days ago I lambasted Al Gore for endorsing Howard Dean. I let my anger at Gore’s presumptuousness overtake and bury the point I was trying to make. Let me try again.

As I wrote Tuesday, there’s nothing wrong with endorsing a candidate per se. What’s wrong is trying to make voters think an election is a done deal before the first vote is cast. It’s wrong when Republicans tell you not to bother participating in this election because President Bush is a lock. And it’s wrong when a Democrat who’s supposed to represent the whole party tells the party’s voters and current presidential candidates, six weeks before Iowa, to stop criticizing the front-runner and “get behind” him.

The people who objected to my argument—and who weren’t even more shrill in their outrage than I was in my piece—made three points worth discussing. One is that I unduly bashed Gore. To the extent that my criticism of the sinner obscured my criticism of the sin, I plead guilty. The problem isn’t Gore. The problem is the myth of inevitability, which fulfills itself by undermining free will.

Tuesday, the perpetrator of that myth was Gore. Today, it’s the Bush campaign. “Bush’s Advisers Focus on Dean as Likely Opponent Next Year,” says the front page of the New York Times. “Various officials from throughout Bush’s political organization said they view the former Vermont governor’s nomination as all but inevitable,” says the Washington Post. Bush advisers who want Dean to be the nominee are happy to make their wish come true by putting out this spin. It deflates other Democratic candidates and the people who might otherwise send them money or go the polls or caucuses for them. If you wouldn’t let Bush narrow your choices this way, you shouldn’t let Gore narrow them either.

Nor should you embrace this cynical game just because you support Dean. I like him, though I don’t worship him, as many Slate readers seem to do. Republicans who think he’s another Michael Dukakis are wrong. I stand by what I wrote six months ago: He’s the most talented Democrat since Bill Clinton. But telling Democrats to get behind the front-runner so they can focus on beating Bush is just as wrong now as it was earlier this year, when the front-runner was John Kerry and one of the candidates being dismissed was Dean.

Other readers who objected to Tuesday’s column argued that far from trying to squelch candidates, Gore was trying to do the opposite: to stop the Democratic establishment from squelching Dean. That would have been a good reason to endorse Dean months ago, when Dean was weaker and the “establishment” opposing him—whatever that means—was stronger. But the “establishment” never made its move, and by the time Gore made his, Dean no longer needed protection.

The details of the Dean-Gore courtship are instructive. According to several reports, Gore and Dean bonded in September 2002 over their opposition to war in Iraq. Since then, they’ve talked once or twice a month. But not until this month, when Dean was the safest of bets, did Gore tell him: “I’ve decided I want to endorse you for president. I don’t want to wait around.” Wait around? Gore waited the whole campaign. He waited until the only candidates in danger of being squelched were Dean’s opponents, and the only establishment figure prepared to do the squelching was Gore. It’s like that Monty Python sketch in which a Robin Hood character keeps stealing from the rich and giving to the poor until, from the standpoint of equality, he’s moving the goods in the wrong direction.

The third rebuttal I heard from readers is that Gore has the right to endorse his favorite candidate just as anybody else does. I never looked at it this way, because I thought Gore had a higher responsibility. He’s the party’s most recent presidential nominee. Jimmy Carter didn’t endorse a candidate before the 1984 primaries. Walter Mondale didn’t endorse one before the 1988 primaries. Dukakis didn’t do it in 1992. Clinton didn’t in 2000 and says he won’t this time, either. The reason they didn’t is that they thought it was their job to represent the whole party, not one wing or one candidate, even if that candidate was their own vice president.

If Gore wants to separate himself from that tradition, fine. But then he really is just another politician. The titular head of the Democratic Party isn’t endorsing Dean. The guy endorsing Dean is giving up his title. In doing so, he opens himself to Joe Lieberman’s charge that Gore now represents the party’s left, or maybe just himself. I never thought of Gore that way before. I do now.