CORN: The Gore Gap

Do you sense a popular upswelling under way? A cry ringing out across this land, "Run, Al, Run..."?

Well, no you don't. There isn't much cheerleading for ex-heir-apparent Al Gore these days. Make that none. Not that -- with the next election three-and-a-half-years off -- there's much of a clamoring for Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman or any of the other White House wannabes. But none of these fellows won the most votes in the last election. And none of them drew the support of a majority of voters in Florida -- as Gore actually did.

(Forget the Supreme Court decision and all the back-and-forth on the media recounts of the undervote and overvote ballots. What is beyond debate is that over 6000 of the infamous butterfly ballots in Palm Beach county were marked for Gore and Pat Buchanan. Only a fool would deny that 90 percent or more of those ballots were intended as votes for Gore. These disqualified votes far surpassed the narrow margin of Bush's supposed victory. So legal mumbo-jumbo aside, Gore ought to be president.)

But he ain't President, and no one seems to miss him. Particularly within Democratic Party officialdom. For the past few months, I have been conducting a rather informal survey, asking dozens of Democratic officials, activists, and operatives whether they would care to see Gore run in 2004. The numbers of yeses: zero.

"There is absolutely no support within the Democratic Party for another Gore run," says a leading Democratic strategist-and-spinner. A senior Democratic staffer in the House says, "The Democrats on the Hill think of him as dead meat. That's when they bother to think of him at all. And that's when they bother to think about him and they are in a kind mood."

Only Lieberman has shown Gore any deference, declaring he would stay out of the 2004 contest if Gore tried again. However, Lieberman did disavow the campaign message he shared with Gore last year, saying that he had not been comfortable with Gore's I'll-fight-for-you-against-the-special-interests theme. That's typical Lieberman sanctimony. He knocks Gore for taking mild steps toward populism, but Lieberman would have gladly ridden that horse into the White House.

And one more knock on Lieberman: while on the ticket, he cooled his moralistic criticisms of Hollywood, as the party bagged millions of dollars in La La land. After the campaign, he introduced legislation that would punish movie and record companies that market unsuitable products -- meaning, those deemed overly violent by a government official -- to minors. By the way, several weeks ago, there was widespread speculation in Washington that Gore and Lieberman would this summer announce their intention to reconstitute the Gore-Lieberman ticket for 2004. But that buzz has petered out.

The anti-Gore consensus in Democratic circles is hardly a shocker. There's unforgiving resentment against the ex-Veep. With peace and prosperity in his pocket, the griping goes, Gore couldn't keep his party in control of the White House. Sure, he got screwed in the Sunshine State. But he should never have been in a situation that tight. And, come on, he only had one real challenge -- to figure out how to claim credit for the Clinton economy while distancing himself from the Clinton pecker. How difficult was that? And among Democratic mandarins, there's also cut-the-deadweight disinterest. After all, Gore never was widely beloved within these quarters. He hasn't engendered far-reaching loyalty. Ever wonder why you don't hear the phrase "Friend of Al"?

So the attitude is, he had his shot. He's a loser. Time to move on. Especially since political pros -- who realize the career value of hooking up with a potential president early -- need to start signing with candidates, and consultants need to collect clients. Right now, for instance, what's known as the "Bob Shrum primary" is under way. Shrum -- aka "Shrummie" -- is the It-consultant for Democrats. He was a key adviser for the Gore campaign. You might think that would have dulled his sheen. But no. Every candidate wants Shrummie and is looking to snatch him should he become available.

With anti-Gore sentiment running high, the Democrats could be heading toward an ugly time -- that is, if Gore returns for a rematch. He will have damn little support from the Democratic establishment. Which will make for an awkward situation. The party would be disavowing the guy it claimed actually won the race. Talk about not standing by your man.

Meanwhile, there will be beyond-the-Beltway Democratic voters still seething who might feel kindly toward Gore. Probably a chunk of these grassroots Dems will be receptive to a Gore-led crusade of revenge against the robbers and barons of the GOP. How will Democratic leaders tell their flock that they should not join a campaign to win back what was stolen from them and should not back a Democrat who was screwed by the dastardly Republicans? There could be a dramatic disconnect between party proles and party elite on this point. Call it the Gore gap. And it could turn into a top-down civil war.

Moreover, every other Democrat now hankering to run supported Gore during the Florida fiasco. So if Gore jumps in, how will they justify thwarting his attempt to right the terrible wrong of 2000? Someone in Gore's camp -- if he has a camp -- ought to be pulling clips from the post-election mess and highlighting indignant quotes from Daschle, Gephardt, Biden and the rest.

Obviously, there is no Gore problem, if there is no Gore. Democrats in Washington are already muttering that Gore has to decide soon -- so they can make plans. Yet there's no clear indication of his inclination. (Word on the street: Tipper has had enough.) And it's tough to venture a guess. But consider this: can he afford a loss? What would it do to Gore's image were he to run again and fail again? And what if that failure came in the Democratic primary? What a bad political joke he would become. Does he want to risk that? Perhaps. But as University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato is fond of noting, "once bitten by the presidential bug, you're permanently infected." And, he could add, judgment be damned.

Certainly, an implicit signal is being beamed at Gore by the pooh-bahs of his party. He can see that no high-profile Democrat has publicly spoken favorably about Gore the Sequel. (This time it's personal!) There might even be explicit pressure directed at Gore not to run. That would come from party funders, fundraisers, and consultants -- including Shrummie -- who look straight into Gore's unreassuring eyes and say, "I'm not positive it's a good thing. And isn't teaching journalism seminars with Dave Letterman more fun than managing the federal government? Besides you're young and 2008 is not so far away."

Should Gore not take the hint, the political consumers of this country might be in for one weird show: Gore, the born-to-be-a-Democratic-insider, mounting a bitter race against his party establishment, as an outsider.

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