It is an endorsement I could not have imagined making in 2000, and certainly not in 1988. But it is one I make today with only a slight degree of trepidation. Ive had my heart broken in political love affairs more times than I can count, but somehow this one feels like a keeper.
I call for Al Gore to run for president in 2008.
He is, within the limitations of the possible, precisely what America requires in this hour of need, and perhaps just what American progressivism requires as well.
My biggest complaint against Gore has always been his politics, not his personality or his reputed woodenness as a candidate (another exaggerated accusation, Id say). If, like me, you wanted your Democratic nominee to have the politics of an FDR or a Paul Wellstone, in Al Gore you got instead a Joe Lieberman - that is, essentially moderate conservatism masked as centrism. Like Bill Clinton, minus the charisma.
But that was the old Al. If youve been following the guy over the last couple of years you know that what has emerged is not just a new politician with a new political incarnation, but something bigger than that, what I take to be a truly new man. Or, perhaps more accurately, the original man, now unpackaged.
In truth, Gores fundamental mistake to date has been the Democratic Partys fundamental mistake for a quarter-century now. It is the mistake of replacing cleverness for conviction, personality for politics, calculation for courage. When was the last time progressives had a Democratic presidential candidate they could vote for with genuine enthusiasm, as opposed to just avoiding the eviler of two lessers? Dukakis? Please. Carter? Jimmys been a lot better former president than he was president. Clinton? Better than the alternatives of Herbert Walker or Dole was about all I could ever say about him. Dukakis (oops, I mean Kerry)? Dont get me started. Id say it was George McGovern, over thirty years ago, and I wasnt even old enough to vote then.
Al Gore today strikes me as a man unleashed. I sense that he is someone with nothing to lose anymore, someone who has thrown off the straightjacket of a lifetimes grooming and aspiration only to now be able, Zen-like, to achieve what he has always wanted simply by not trying so hard. If Gore runs like he has been speaking and writing while in exile these last five years, I think America is going to see a Democratic candidate the likes of which it hasnt since perhaps Give Em Hell Harry Truman did his number in 1948.
Why Gore? There are a number of reasons, beyond the obvious ones of resume (including having been the second-most powerful vice-president in American history), name-recognition, campaign experience, fully vetted background, and an existing campaign infrastructure.
The most important reason is conviction. I have written and said this countless times, but I will do so again, at the risk of being redundant, because I believe it is one of the central axioms of American politics (and indeed of human nature everywhere). Simply put, people want to be led, and - within limits - they dont care quite so much where you want to lead them as they do that you the leader know where youre going. Both Reagan and Young Bush (till lately) have proven this, it seems to me, by being leaders who were popular chiefly on the basis of their leadership, not because of, and even despite, public policy preferences and ideological dispositions often quite contrary to theirs. This is especially true in the short-term, and, of course, the entire life of any non-incumbent in a campaign is in the short-term.
If Al Gore can resist the temptation to yield to the inevitable gravitational forces yanking any candidate towards becoming some Malt-O-Meal mushy political porridge of the unseasoned center, he can be an extremely formidable candidate. The issues are on his side. He need only to present them forcefully, consistently and with conviction, and the voters will follow. The alternative is disaster. Voters can smell insincerity and pandering, and they rarely reward it. The popularity of John McCain (quite possibly the Republican nominee in 2008), and his distinction from garden-variety politicians in or out of his party, is based almost entirely on his perceived persona as a rare politician of conviction. In my judgement he wasted a lot of that with his bear-hug of Bush in 2004 (which any smart Democrat would use in 2008 to dismantle this persona, and hence his very raison d'être as a candidate), but the point is that John McCain is John McCain almost entirely because of this perception of him as a man of conviction. Al Gore can be the same, especially if he lets his anger about what is happening to America guide his campaign.
This is the second reason why Gore should run, and could be a monster as a candidate. I think hes flat out pissed, and he should be. Like the button on my coat says, If youre not outraged, youre not paying attention. Gore is paying attention, and he is sickened, as are the rest of us who are paying attention, at what is happening to our country, and at what our country is doing to the world. My guess is that this means he will not be steamrolled by the right like he was in 2000, or Dukakis was in 1988, or Kerry in 2004, or Clinton for the eight years of his presidency. My guess is that Gore has learned the hard way that these people wrecking America and the world are cowardly bullies who, like Hitler at Munich, only win when the opposition lacks the courage to call them out.
And it would be so very easy to do. This is what I never understood about Clinton or Kerry. In any case, I dont sense that Al Gore is going to reprise that mistake. Gore has a healthy anger about what is happening to America - and, make no mistake, anger is the only healthy sentiment for patriots right now. If he continues to harness it into a steely comportment that takes no crap from no one, never, no how - then look out.
A third reason Gore would be a formidable candidate is because he is smart, and, oh, how refreshing that would be after eight years of the Slogan Boy on Permanent Vacation, the president who doesnt even read newspapers but relies instead on his aides to learn what is happening in the world. (You remember them, right? Karl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld, Scooter Libby, Michael Brown, Harriet Miers, Paul Wolfowitz?) Gore is not just smart like Clinton the policy wonk, or Carter the nuclear engineer, but he is philosopher-of-history smart. He has a keen sense of Americas place in a historical and global context, and a better understanding by far than anybody prominent in the political arena of what the challenges of the future entail. The easiest place to see that is in how he got environmentalism and the Iraq war right while so many continue even to this day to get those questions wrong, with disastrous consequences. But those were easy calls. Whats harder is seeing the future now, and determining what America needs to remain prosperous, and what the world needs from American leadership in order to transcend the massive global challenges we all now face. Gore is light years ahead of anybody else on these sorts of issues, in part because hes one of the few political figures other than Newt Gingrich (who of course gets it wrong) even thinking about them.