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Al Gore, Exit Stage Left

What Al Gore's departure from the 2004 field means for the Democratic party.

11:00 PM, Dec 15, 2002 • By FRED BARNES
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THE IMPORTANT THING about Al Gore's decision not to run for president in 2004--other than the decision itself--is the debate it will unleash inside the Democratic party, both during next year's run-up to the primaries, and in the 2004 primaries themselves. That debate will be about war: war against Iraq, the war on terrorism, indeed war itself as a tool of national security and a path to democratization. And it will be a lively, emotional, instructive, and perhaps even bitter debate, exactly the sort of debate the Democratic party needs.

With Gore gone, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is sure to run, carrying a war message that would not otherwise be as full-throated and articulate on the Democratic side if he'd stayed out. Lieberman, of course, had famously promised to stay out if Gore, his running mate in 2000, chose to run. In Lieberman's absence, those Democrats who oppose war with Iraq and favor a softer war on terrorism than President Bush is waging--especially Gore himself--would dominate their party.

Only Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina voted to give Bush a free hand in attacking Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein--that is, voted enthusiastically. Ex-Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts voted for the war resolution, but they did so defensively, tepidly, and warily. They certainly don't back Bush. Kerry explained his vote was meant to prod Bush to seek United Nations approval before acting.

In any case, with the first 2004 contest in Iowa, where the Democratic rank and file are heavily isolationist, the pro-war side of the debate might have been snuffed out entirely. And maybe in the second event, the New Hampshire primary, too. Democrats there tend to be quite liberal.

Without Lieberman's presence, Edwards and former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, among potential candidates, would have been the chief pro-war Democrats in the race. Edwards has a number of strong attributes, but experience in national security policymaking and the ability to speak out persuasively on issues of war and peace aren't among them. Gephardt's strength is domestic policy, and his base is organized labor, which is ambivalent on war issues. It's doubtful, to me anyway, either Edwards or Gephardt would be able to counter effectively the anti-war candidates.

Lieberman, however, won't have that problem. He's a heavyweight on national security issues. He was a player in the Persian Gulf war, backing President Bush the elder. And he's continued to have a strong foreign policy voice. Now, as a top-tier presidential candidate, he will get considerably more attention and press coverage. His Democratic opponents will have to try to rebut his pro-war arguments, which are similar to Bush's (though Lieberman won't stress this point).

So with Gore's departure, the Democratic party has suddenly become more lively and interesting, just at the time Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress. Gore had hung like a dark cloud over the party, keeping Democrats in an angry mood over the way the 2000 presidential election was decided. Now they can address the future, and with Lieberman out front they won't be seen as a knee-jerk anti-war party--unless Lieberman's message is overwhelmingly rejected in the primaries.

Why did Gore drop out? Who knows? The more I've seen of Gore over the years, the less I understand what he's doing or why. I thought he was the ultimate New Democrat--moderate, pro-free market, not a liberal isolationist, and all the rest. As we know now, he's adopted the persona and the policies of a populist left-winger. The country has moved right, so he moves left. You figure it out.

Maybe the departure is more personal. Some of his top campaign aides have let the world know they wouldn't be with Gore in 2004. Democratic elites didn't want Gore to run, figuring he'd lose. Gore is still distracted by his loss in 2000. His book on family policy has flopped. His poll numbers are slipping.

Gore's exit means Daschle will probably run, if only because there's suddenly more room for a liberal candidate, a huge chunk of the liberal constituency having just been released. Daschle, Lieberman, Gephardt, Edwards, Kerry--that's a formidable field of Democrats, not to be taken for granted as losers by the Bush White House.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.