Bush then followed the advice of neoconservative advisers -- rushing through a retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan and letting al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden slip away -- so the U.S. military could move on to invading Iraq, which had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks.
The Iraq invasion and resulting chaos led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis -- and ironically helped al-Qaeda establish a foothold in the Sunni areas of Iraq. Meanwhile, Bush's neglect of the Afghan conflict allowed al-Qaeda's allies, the Taliban, to stage a comeback there.
If Gore had been president, it's very possible 9/11 never would have happened and -- even if it did -- Gore would have almost surely responded in a less blunderbuss way. Gore also had a strong record for respecting the constitutional rights of Americans and the principles of international law, while Bush treated both as inconveniencies to be ignored or overridden.
Bush also enacted more tax cuts weighted toward the wealthy, blowing a huge hole in the federal budget and hollowing out more of the middle class. Bush appointed two more right-wing justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, key votes in the 2010 Citizens United case, which opened the floodgates to special interest spending to buy elections.
But perhaps most significantly, Gore cared about the looming existential crisis of global warming, while Bush treated the issue with disdain, thus contributing to the hostility now expressed by right-wingers who depict the science on climate change as a myth and as part of some grand socialist conspiracy.
If the planet continues toward climate devastation -- with ice caps melting, sea levels rising and droughts disrupting food supplies -- a key turning point will have been the presidency of George W. Bush, rather than the presidency of Al Gore.
While many institutions and individuals share the blame for installing Bush in the White House, part of the responsibility must fall on the Green Party and Ralph Nader, who helped Bush get close enough to steal Florida's electoral votes and thus the presidency. The bitter irony is that the one major mark that the American Green Party may have on history is enabling an anti-environmental president to put the world on course for ecological destruction.
Yes, I know Nader and the Green Party deny all responsibility for this catastrophe; they point their fingers at everybody else including Al Gore. But their arguments are sophistry. The truth is they ignored many timely warnings about the danger that ultimately came to pass; they knew they were playing chicken with the planet; their reckless words (about "Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee" and "not a dime's worth of difference") were unsafe at any speed.
Which brings us to 2012 and what many on the Left insist is another meaningless election between two politicians whose only differences are cosmetic. We are told again that it doesn't matter whether President Obama gets a second term or if Mitt Romney and the Tea-Party Republicans take full control of the U.S. government.
We're told that elections simply don't matter, even if these right-wing Republicans will likely gut what's left of the New Deal and the Great Society; will further concentrate wealth at the top; will free Wall Street from even the modest burden of the Dodd-Frank regulations; will drive more middle-class families into poverty; will let thousands of Americans die prematurely without health care; will put neocons firmly back in charge of U.S. foreign policy with plans to extend the Afghan War and start possible new wars in Syria and Iran.
After all, Barack Obama has not been perfect on these issues. He has blood on his own hands. He has made many compromises. He is far from the socialist that some Tea Partiers claim he is. I'm often told by progressives that they are "disappointed" in Obama as if their feelings are the most important part of this equation.
It does seem that some on the Left will only be satisfied with perfection. They act more like critics whose job is to find fault with a politician than as participants in a political process. "Obama should have done this; Obama should have done that."
Indeed, some behave as if what's truly important is that they be recognized as staking out the "perfect" -- the most uncompromising -- position, regardless of how impractical that stance might be or what harmful side effects it might have.
This vanity of perfectionism sometimes takes precedence even if it may help empower an unstable or incompetent U.S. leader who would implement horribly destructive policies that could kill millions.
What some on the Left fail to grasp is that who is elected President of the United States -- even with the deep gradations of gray among the major-party choices -- can mean life or death to people around the planet, even life or death for the planet itself.