Al Gore has wanted to be president of the United States for a very long time.
I don’t think you can understand the man and his recent actions without first recognizing this fact. His endorsement Tuesday of Howard Dean for president has a host of implications and has already been analyzed from many different angles. But I think it’s useful to zero in on the changing relationship between Gore and the Clintons.
But first the history. His father, Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore, had groomed his son to be on the national stage from childhood. The younger Al went on to service in the U.S. House from Tennessee and then sought election to the U.S. Senate seat from Tennesee that his father had once held. He established himself in Washington as a centrist, a hawkish Democrat with moderate-to-conservative leanings on some domestic issues. Then Gore ran a serious campaign for president in 1988 — opting, by the way, to bypass the first two Democratic contests in hopes of doing well in the South in the same way that some are trying to do in 2004. He fell short, losing out to a popular New England governor whom everyone though would be a great and motivating standard-bearer for the Democratic Party.
In 1992, then-Gov. Clinton of Arkansas picked his fellow then-moderate Southerner Gore to be his vice presidential running mate. The two went on to prevail in the general election, aided by the third-party candidate of another Southerner, Ross Perot, who pulled votes disproportionately from President George Bush in key states.
Over the next eight years, Gore was a loyal part of the Clinton team. He accepted relatively low-profile assignments and was able to raise their profile slightly. He gave Clinton what was probably valuable advice on foreign and defense matters, where the governor was weakest, and Gore was a prominent defender of the Clinton administration’s policies of free trade and military intervention overseas, even against critics from among the Congressional Democrats with whom Gore had previously served.
But the Monica Lewinsky scandal seems to have horrified Gore, who is at least a family man, and began a rift between the president and vice president that extended to and deepened during the 2000 presidential campaign. Trying to handle deftly the problem of associating himself with the good economic performance of the 1990s while disassociating himself from Clinton the man, Gore managed to alienate Clinton and his loyalists without fully blunting the issue of leadership and ethics. A last-minute barrage of negative press about George W. Bush stemming from revelations of a drunk-driving arrest decades before helped quash Republican turnout and push some wavering voters Gore’s way. The result was a narrow victory in the popular vote and a narrow loss in the Electoral College.
The already problematic Clinton-Gore relationship just kept deteriorating after that. Clintonistas blamed Gore for squandering the legacy and losing what they argued was an easy race. The Gore Corps blamed Clinton for squandering the legacy through personal misbehavior and causing Gore to lose what they argued should have been an easy race. Furthermore, it soon became evident that Hillary Rodham Clinton was planning an electoral career of her own, one that would likely begin to overshadow the newly idled Gore and set up a rival power within the Democratic Party for the future.
Meanwhile, in 2001 and 2002, perhaps radicalized by the Florida fiasco and the resulting furor, Gore began to gravitate leftward. He had always been a bit of a loon on the environment, but now he espoused increasingly liberal social attitudes. He endorsed national health insurance. He renounced his previous advocacy of NAFTA and other free-trade policies, as did much of his increasingly protectionist party. Most importantly, as the Bush administration began preparations for what would became the invasion of Iraq, the formerly hawkish Gore began to express real doubts about the policy, later choosing a left-wing venue in Washington to announce his opposition to the war.
Was this the real Al Gore, a sort of “Al Gore After Dark” figure who was finally liberated to be himself? Perhaps. But another factor, I believe, was his desire to distance himself further from the Clintons. It probably pains some on the Right to dwell on this, but Bill and Hillary Clinton are among the few prominent Democrats who still say they believe that the Bush policy was the right one, even if they disagree about how it was carried out (two presidential candidates, Dick Gephardt and John Edwards, also remain in this camp, at least the last time I checked).
Gore probably endorsed Dean for many reasons. His new political persona is closer to Dean than to his own VP pick, Joe Lieberman, who retains some centrist tendencies. Gore is now closely aligned with the anti-war Democrats, of whom Dean is becoming the national leader for now. Some speculate that he assumes Dean will lose badly to Bush and will thus preserve the possibility of a Gore comeback in 2008. Maybe, but that’s quite a Machiavellian play for Gore. It sounds more like a Clinton move.
My guess is that while these ideas may be bouncing around in his head, Gore is primarily taking the steps he believes necessary to shove the Clintons out of the way, out of the Democratic spotlight, in order to make room for others, including possibly himself in the future. Dean is definitely not the Clintons’ preferred candidate. That is Wesley Clark, who doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Gephardt and Edwards, respectively, also have some Clintonist leanings on particular issues. Can’t have that.
If this analysis of Gore’s intentions is true, some conservatives and Republicans will have mixed feelings about it. They continue to be revolted by the scandal and corruption of the Clintons. And on policy issues, they would prefer a clear electoral choice between hawks and doves, between pro-business and pro-labor candidates, between Right and Left. Dean and the new Gore offer just such a delicious prospect. The Clintons blur the lines.
On the other hand, what if the Dean-Gore Democrats win?
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.