Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Former Vice President Al Gore’s endorsement of Howard Dean for president yesterday has set off more than the usual level of political rumblings. While many deep theories are being conjured up to explain it, Mr. Gore’s remarkably straightforward, even blunt, explanation makes sense: Mr. Gore thinks Mr. Dean has the best chance to win and take the White House back for Democrats. After all, that is the most typical reason to endorse a candidate —to get on the winner’s bandwagon as early as possible.

The various deeper explanations invoke visions of a death struggle on a secret stage between the Clintons and Mr. Gore for possession of the Democratic Party’s soul and financial mechanisms so as to better position for the 2008 Democratic nomination. In this theory, Mr. Dean, Wesley Clark, John Kerry and the rest are all mere pawns, unknowingly being moved sacrificially across the chess table by former Clinton and Gore super-staffers who have been secretly and deceitfully placed in critical power positions in the various campaigns.

While some politicians do engage in such long-term machinations, the more successful ones usually will simply accumulate political capital when it is available and spend it when future investment opportunities present themselves.(After all, a year from now President Bush could be unbeatable or without a chance of victory. As the folk saying goes, to make God laugh, tell him your plans for the future.) What is quite clear is that Mr. Gore has substantially increased his political assets by this endorsement. If Mr. Dean wins, Mr. Gore is a kingmaker — and possibly a secretary of state.

The more important question though is what this endorsement does for Mr. Dean. It is probably very helpful. Endorsements, by themselves, mean little in modern national politics. If Mr. Gore had endorsed Dennis Kucinich, even cable news would barely have mentioned it. But Mr. Dean is running the best campaign in the field. He is the front-runner and a factional leader in the process of trying to become a true national candidate. The right establishment endorsement of such a candidate can be the difference between success and failure. And Mr. Gore is the right establishment figure for Mr. Dean.

The transition from factional to national leadership is always a dangerous process. It is like a snake discarding its protective skin to permit growth. At the moment of shedding, the snake is vulnerable to being mortally bitten. If it survives that moment, it quickly grows a new protective skin around a larger, more formidable body. The danger to Mr. Dean is that his anti-establishment base will suspect a sellout when the establishment starts joining up. All factions — right and left — suspect such things. But Mr. Gore is a unique figure. As a former congressman, senator, vice president and presidential nominee, he is the very definition of an establishment Democrat. But his current views of the issues are almost radically anti-establishment.

Usually, politicians move from left to right as they mature. As Winston Churchill observed, if you are not on the left as a youth, you have no heart. If you are not on the right in maturity, you have no brain. But Al Gore has reversed that progression. He has gone from a pro-gun, anti-abortion, pro-tobacco military hawk as a congressman to the edgy left-center of the spectrum today. His speech accepting the presidential nomination in Los Angeles in 2000, in which he pitted the people against the powerful, was a clear rejecting of Clintonian centrism. His early and vituperative opposition to the Iraq war lines him up — both substantively and tonally —with Mr. Dean’s Internet supporters.

Whether Al Gore is becoming a political eccentric, or whether he is defining a new, leftward center of gravity in the Democratic Party, remains to be seen. But at this moment, he is sufficiently establishment to blaze a safe and secure passage for the rank and file Democrats into the Dean tent. And he is sufficiently radical to calm the quivering antennae of the Dean true believers. This is the most valuable political endorsement since Hillary Clinton stood by her man in 1998.

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