WASHINGTON — Al Gore saved this country once already from attacks on the judiciary, and he’ll do it again. That’s what he told a fervent MoveOn crowd yesterday afternoon at a Capitol Hill hotel ballroom.
Joining the fray over the “nuclear option,” Gore took advantage of his first major appearance since the 2004 election to settle old scores, condemn alleged threats on the judiciary, and contest Republican plans to end filibusters of judicial nominations. And in so doing, the restyled Southern sage accused religious conservatives of “American heresy.”
The former vice president pointed to his magnanimous acceptance of one particular federal court decision as an example of respect for procedural justice. In the wake of a “bitterly divided 5 to 4 opinion” with which he “couldn’t have possibly disagreed more strongly,” Gore recalled how he conceded the 2000 election.
“Even though many of my supporters said they were unwilling to accept a ruling which they suspected was brazenly partisan in its motivation and simply not entitled to their respect,” Gore said, “I went before the American people to reaffirm the bedrock principle that we are a nation of laws, not men.”
Threatening that the demonstrators may not leave the streets next time, Gore set a new standard for peaceful acceptance of court decisions. If the justices of the majority in Bush v. Gore had all been Republican-nominated and confirmed only by Republican senators, “America would not have accepted that court’s decision.”
What is more, violence may not have been averted if those justices had been confirmed with the rejection of the filibuster, Gore warned. “Then no speech imaginable could have calmed the passions aroused in our country.”
Though Gore repeated familiar arguments against the “nuclear option,” he substantially raised the stakes in claiming the essence of America is threatened by the religious “zealots” who are supposedly behind the plan.
Al Gore presented himself yesterday as the clear-minded Southern statesman, historian, and philosopher-poseur. Citing every possible supporter in history, including Aristotle, the prophet Isaiah, Saint Thomas More, Lord Acton, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, George Will and John McCain, he argued that allowing a simple majority to approve judicial nominations threatens the rule of law, democracy, and freedom.
Though the filibuster has been used for “devilish purposes,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s plan displays “willingness to do serious damage to our American democracy in order satisfy their lust” for Republican domination of all government branches. They seek “absolute power” and “envision a total breakdown of the separation of powers.” He cited as examples quotes from conservative and Republican leaders threatening action against activist judges.
The fundamental flaw “of these zealots,” Gore said, is “actually an American heresy… at odds with the founding principles of the United States of America.” The founders’ “forbears” came to America to escape those “who mixed religion and politics.” “Right-wing religious zealotry is actually a throw-back to the intolerance that led to the creation of America in the first place.”
Republicans do the bidding of “right-wing religious extremists and exceptionally greedy economic special interests,” Gore claimed. Referring to this past Sunday’s video telecast featuring Frist, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, Charles Colson, and Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, Gore said those who claim “special knowledge of God’s will in American politics” also claim “that those of us who disagree with their point of view are waging war against ‘people of faith.’ How dare they!”
FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE his vice presidency, Al Gore was on Capitol Hill publicly fighting over the issue of the day. Since the 2000 election, Gore has only sporadically recharged his political relevance. He briefly emerged in mid-2002 to inveigh against the White House. He teased the press with a media tour that November before bowing out of the 2004 election. Gore made another MoveOn appearance in August 2003 with a spirited speech at New York University. He auditioned as Howard Dean’s kingmaker later that year, but may have sunk the candidate instead. He also sought to anoint John Kerry, meeting with the presumptive nominee and emptying his 2000 campaign account into party coffers. Just this month, he announced his forthcoming cable network.
The relaunched 2005 Al Gore is much like what the late Michael Kelly observed during the 2002 media blitz: “Gore, the thinker of big thoughts; Gore, the visionary; Gore, the radical; Gore, the bold man of the left.” This time around he is also Gore, the Southern statesman, wise from his years in the Senate and back with a selective Tennessee twang. He is Gore, “one of the most consequential leaders of our time,” as a MoveOn supporter introduced him. Gore the philosopher-poseur may not may not be running for president in 2008. Yet more than a few “Gore 2008” buttons (with the old 2000 campaign graphics) could be spotted among the faithful (and only one “Clark ’08” pin).
Revamped or not, some old habits die hard. His speech had familiar features: annoyed and overbearing looks, speaking over a cheering audience, begging the question, and righteous defensiveness (“How dare they!). Gore is still a one-man debate squad, arguing every point and working himself into a sweat by the end of his 52-minute harangue.
But one gets the feeling this is more about Al than the judiciary. He broached other old battles from leftover Clinton administration judicial nominees, the war in Iraq, health care, and, his specialty, the environment. In other words, the same old Al, shrill and smug. How long before he wears out his welcome again?