Whatever Al Gore’s motives are in endorsing Howard Dean, his move has been widely hailed as a brilliant stroke, or at least a shrewd one, positioning Gore for a future in the Democratic Party and presenting very little downside risk. But Gore’s endorsement is in reality a high-stakes gamble. For a politician long accused of terminal timidity, he can take some credit for finally rolling the dice. Assuming that Gore’s ultimate goal is to get to the White House himself and not just thwart Hillary Clinton (a secondary objective of considerable importance), he has hardly set himself an easy road.
There are four possible outcomes to the Gore-Dean partnership, only one of which, to my thinking, would help Gore become president:
(1) Dean beats Bush and wins the presidency. To hear a good portion of the media tell it, Gore would benefit greatly from a Dean victory. He would be recognized as a kingmaker, and he would have access to the new administration and probably a shot at a cabinet post. Gee, sounds swell — but this is a former vice president we’re talking about, a man who won the popular vote and is widely regarded as the rightful winner of the 2000 presidential election. What can Dean give him, Secretary of State? That’s significant power, but there’s only one boss, and Al Gore thought he had that job already. Or maybe Dean would sentence him to Secretary of the Interior, allowing Gore to bring out a revised edition of Earth in the Balance. What commentators seem to forget is that, while Gore may be Dean’s patron right now, the relationship will turn on its head if Dean wins the presidency. Then it will be Dean’s party — the Clinton-Gore battle will be just a memory — and Al Gore, if he chooses to work in the new administration, will be cast in the familiar role of defender of the indefensible. And he will have to wait until 2012 before he can run again. Does anyone really believe that he would be the most compelling Democratic candidate then, having spent eight years as Dean’s lackey, or alternatively, as an invisible supporter? The only gain Gore gets here is the not inconsiderable pleasure of denying Hillary a shot in 2008. Revenge is sweet, but it won’t help Gore get to the White House.
(2) Dean loses to Bush in a competitive race. This is the one scenario that could help Gore. If Dean loses to Bush but is not the victim of the landslide so many overconfident conservatives expect, then Gore’s standing in the party will improve measurably. He will have stuck his neck out for Dean at a time when the establishment had not yet embraced him, fought the good fight against the war in Iraq and the evils of the Bush administration, and come up short. His involvement will have been deeper than that of a mere team player getting on board at the 11th hour. Gore would have the goodwill of Dean’s voters and the appearance of integrity – not running as a candidate, but apparently doing all he could to help another Democrat win instead, and almost getting there. And the bonus, of course, is that the Clinton-Gore mud-fight of 2008 could then proceed on schedule. This is almost worth rooting for a close contest between Dean and Bush next year.
(3) Dean loses to Bush in a rout. How could such an outcome be anything but a disaster for Gore? True, he’ll still have the goodwill of the Dean people, but what use will that be in this case? In exchange for their gratitude, he will have acquired the everlasting contempt of Democrats, who already blame him for blowing the 2000 election. Now he will be the villain who helped cement Dean’s suicidal nomination. Some commentators point to Nixon’s support of Goldwater in 1964, but the character of that support was very different than Gore’s is for Dean. Nixon was strictly being a team player; he symbolically remained seated at the Cow Palace in San Francisco when Goldwater concluded his acceptance speech. And when Goldwater went down in flames, Republicans did not blame Nixon; they blamed right-wing activists for hijacking the party. In contrast, Al Gore has put himself on the line for Dean. If the blowout transpires, Gore will be the guy who stuck his neck out to chase a fantasy, four years after inexplicably running against his administration’s popularity and losing an election that should have been his for the taking. He would stand as a truly epic case of political self-destruction and ruinous judgment. In 2008, he would be lunchmeat for Hillary, if things even got that far. More likely, he would be pelted with snowballs on arrival in Iowa or New Hampshire.
(4) Dean is denied the nomination. The effect on Gore would be similar to the rout scenario, but less severe. Gore would still look very foolish, and he would have no position for 2008. There would either be an incumbent Democratic president or a field of centrist candidates who would have learned anew the cautionary lesson of a Democratic candidate that leans too far left. But at least Gore would not be a villain. He would merely be a joke, and people might take pity on him for a time. But the end result would be the same: Hillary would fillet him, probably in environmentally unsafe fashion.
But for all of that, Gore has probably made the best move he can make, given his predicament. He is outflanked by the Clintons on the right of the party, and that is not ground he can hope to claim. On his left, he sees the Dean train threatening to leave the station. What can he do but hop aboard? With all that is at stake, doing nothing would be even riskier than what he has just done.
In his endorsement speech for Dean, Gore came right out and used the Q-word to describe the situation in Iraq. But as his menu of unappetizing choices makes clear, the real quagmire for Gore is his own position in the Democratic Party. Don’t move, and he sinks. Make a move, and he’ll probably sink anyway. But in endorsing Dean, he’s given himself the best chance, slim though it is, that he will be able to float … all the way to 2008.
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