Gore's ringing endorsement sounds like power grab

December 11, 2003|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Al Gore will not be ignored.

With his endorsement of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the former vice president moved from political Siberia to the Democratic Party's power center.

He's made several "major" addresses, as his staff has called them, over the past couple of years, but none rattled the political establishment as much or raised as many startling questions, such as: Why now? Why Dr. Dean? Why not Mr. Gore's former running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut? Does Mr. Gore really think Dr. Dean has a prayer? Has "Call Me Al" Gore gone completely nuts?

The answer appears to be seven words: Mr. Gore wants to be a player.

If Dr. Dean wins the nomination and the presidency, Mr. Gore will be seen as a kingmaker who helped put him there with a well-timed endorsement.

If Dr. Dean loses either one, Mr. Gore still will be remembered as the fellow who shifted the national conversation with one little speech in Harlem, a status that could help him become a major contender to run himself in 2008.

Mr. Gore's endorsement, coming on top of other important endorsements from Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. of Illinois and two major unions, shows Dr. Dean is reaching beyond his maverick, outsider, largely Internet-generated base to impress some party insiders.

It also strikes a blow to Dr. Dean's rivals, particularly Mr. Lieberman, whom Mr. Gore curiously did not find the time to notify of his decision before announcing it.

But Mr. Gore seems to have bigger fish to worry about. His single-minded robo-candidate vision seems to be locked like a radar-guided missile on another agenda: building a new base in the party to compete with the power exerted by Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton and their friends, including party chairman Terry McAuliffe.

Yes, Dr. Dean gains by hooking up with Mr. Gore, but so does Mr. Gore. By endorsing Dr. Dean, Mr. Gore helps quicken Dr. Dean's followers into a full-blown faction, rivaling the Clinton insiders.

In this way, we see leading Democrats reverting to their historical propensity for factional infighting. (Republicans, by contrast, show a remarkable talent for keeping their bareknuckle smackdowns in-house.)

A similar maverick uprising in the party's 1972 convention, partly led by a young Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. of Chicago, unseated the Illinois delegation led by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Outsiders that year nominated Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, who lost almost every state that November.

Ironically, many of those idealistic mavericks are today's pragmatic insiders who have been trying to find any alternative to Dr. Dean, who they dread will be another Mr. McGovern - too extreme to be elected.

Mr. Gore may well remember that those same insiders urged him not to run this year, despite polls that have showed him to be more popular than the Democratic candidates who are running.

Now, standing next to Dr. Dean, Mr. Gore seems to give stature and receive it. Voters looking for a maverick outsider might easily forget that Mr. Gore used to be the ultimate Washington insider, a senator who was the son of a senator.

And Mr. Gore the techno-gadget freak must be impressed by how well Dr. Dean's new-wave campaign-building machine rides on the cutting edge of new technologies adapted to populist politics. Dr. Dean's ability to draw crowds, organize local campaigns and raise funds has broken all expectations by using the device Mr. Gore once inaccurately claimed to have invented: the Internet.

The only problem with this scenario is that it reveals how little of Dr. Dean's campaign has been about nuts-and-bolts issues and how much of it has been about opposing "Bush's war." He spells out that opposition in crowd-pleasing generalities but little detail as to how he would withdraw the United States from Iraq or what the consequences might be for the region or America's image around the world. So far, he hasn't had to offer details. Ironically, like Richard M. Nixon in 1968, he only has to promise to withdraw America with honor and that's enough red meat for his hard-core supporters.

With that in mind, Dr. Dean runs a risk by linking himself too closely to party insiders such as Mr. Gore. His supporters might seriously question the ability of insiders to remain loyal to something larger than themselves - something like ideals. They might even mention as an example of Mr. Gore's fidelity his heave-ho farewell to Mr. Lieberman. Ah, and you wonder why so many people hate politics.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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