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Born-Again Loser

Al Gore revs up the campaign engine and Democrats look for someone--anyone--else.

12:00 AM, Jul 19, 2002 • By ERIN SHELEY
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LAST WEEK Al Gore was on the campaign trail again. Before a gathering of supporters in New York City, he slipped back into the role of self-styled defender of the common man and spotted owl, comparing the Bush administration to everything from Enron to a hungry fox in a chicken coop. Enthusiastic remarks from wife Tipper and daughter Karenna made a second Gore candidacy sound likely. This time, the former vice president warned, he'll be "letting it rip, . . . pouring out [his] heart and vision for America's future."

The idea of a Bush v. Gore rematch appeals to liberals still grappling with a sense of having been wronged in the Florida recount. But as former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile says, "Gore could have some difficulty launching a new campaign. He could be the favorite of voters--but not the super delegates [to the convention] and members of Congress."

They might be tempted to back one of their own. After all, while Gore was relaxing and trying out his new beard, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle has been the Democrats' standard bearer. In a recent speech to the National Press Club, "Making a Difference: America and the Senate a Year After the Jeffords Switch," Daschle portrayed his year of stewardship--with its rhetoric-friendly efforts such as the patients' bill of rights--as a kind of watershed in domestic policy. Then there's John Edwards, the junior senator from North Carolina, who held his own fund-raising retreat the same weekend as Gore's. And Massachusetts senator John Kerry, who put his moderate foot forward two years ago by joining the New Democrats. Even Joe Lieberman--despite his vow not to run for president if his former running mate jumps in--told the Christian Science Monitor, "My mission [as president] will be to carry on with a New Democratic philosophy of centrism of the Clinton years."

There is, of course, only so much room (and money) at the center, and a Gore candidacy could squeeze out other mainstream moderates such as Daschle. Polls of Democratic voters have consistently put Gore in the lead by a sizable margin, while Daschle and the others remain in single digits. Democratic strategist Mark Mellman says, "There's no question that Gore starts out as the favorite," even though the rest of the party "would not likely defer to him this time as they did when he was sitting vice president." To have a shot at capturing voters' attention, a challenger to Gore would have to present a clearly differentiated message, in the manner of Bill Bradley in 2000. Though lacking the name recognition of Daschle or Gephardt, John Edwards offers at least a stylistic contrast to the other potential contenders. New to politics when he won election to the Senate in 1998, Edwards is a well-manicured version of the populist/outsider. But any Democrat who runs will face an uphill struggle against Gore.

A Gore triumph in the primaries, however, might turn out to be a gift to the GOP. America has grown up since the Florida circus. This side of September 11, the bitter personal politics that would inevitably result from a reprise of the Bush-Gore contest might seem trivial and even distasteful to a changed public. Whatever Gore's supporters say, he did not win a mandate in 2000. While Mellman maintains that most Democrats believe Gore "received the most votes," he also thinks "people have moved beyond that and it's not likely to be an issue one way or another" in the 2004 election. Too much has happened since.

Bush's sky-high wartime approval ratings have held more or less constant--even amidst the controversy over what the White House knew about September 11 (an issue unlikely to benefit Gore, whose own administration was implicated in the same lapses). In a June 2002 Bloomberg News poll, 56 percent of respondents said they would vote for Bush if the election were held "today," 32 percent for Gore. In the face of Bush's big advantage, Daschle--if he could win the nomination--might be the Democrats' best bet in November. He could challenge Bush on domestic issues, particularly the economy, while also claiming a leadership role during the terrorist crisis. Gore couldn't. While Daschle was dealing with an anthrax attack on his office last fall, Gore was "fixing fences" in Tennessee.

Erin Sheley is an intern at The Weekly Standard.