All For Gore In 2004

Al, please run. I've changed my mind. Please.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote an article straightforwardly headlined, "Al, Don't Run." It really ticked off grassroots Democrats who still craved a Gore presidency. Hundreds of how-dare-you emails arrived. In fact, the level of vituperativeness exceeded that of most right-wing hate mail I receive. My beef with Gore was that he had an authenticity problem -- not in the manner normally cited by political commentators. The issue was not his personality and self-comfort (or lack thereof). The problem was his politics were not genuine, or, to be more charitable, the genuineness of his politics was not evident.

Gore campaigned in 2000 as a people-versus-the-powerful populist, but his record as a populist was slim. As vice president, he had sided with pharmaceutical companies in their battle against the government of South Africa, which had passed laws to lower the cost of HIV/AIDS treatments. The Clinton-Gore administration had supported telecommunications and banking legislation that placed corporate interests ahead of consumer interests. His campaign staff was riddled with corporate lobbyists. Gore and the Democratic Party readily banked contributions from major corporations looking for special favors from government. How ridiculous it had been to watch Gore declare at his party's convention, "So often powerful forces and powerful interests stand in your way ... . As President, I'll stand up to them and I'll stand up for you" -- while corporate donors gazed down from skyboxes at Los Angeles' Staples Center. (When I asked DNC fundraiser-turned-party-chief Terry McAuliffe about the skybox denizens, he said, "So they get some popcorn and some beer. Big deal.")

Gore's populist schtick was not in keeping with his past as a campaigner -- recent or distant. In 1988, he had sought the presidency as a conservative Southerner who could win the hearts and wallets of the Democratic Leadership Council, the center-right, corporate-subsidized slice of the party. And at the start of the 2000 campaign, Gore proclaimed he was the candidate of "pragmatic idealism" -- whatever that was. He raised no holler at that point about moneyed interests trampling over common folk. And when the Dems needed a populist leader at the start of George W. Bush's administration, as Bush was ramming through a budget-busting, help-the-rich tax cut and deregulating as fast as he could, Gore was gonesville.

My unsolicited advice to Gore was, give it a rest. If he wanted to again seek the presidency as a populist, he should first spend several years as a crusading university president, an environmental advocate, or an unofficial ambassador for social justice in the Third World. Skip 2004 and come back ready, rested and genuine, rather than return for a rematch as a perennial wannabe.

Now, I hope Gore re-ups. The reason? Three words: Stop Joe Lieberman.

Lieberman, the Senator from Connecticut who was Gore's ticket-mate, has pledged he will not enter the 2004 fray if Gore does. But if Gore demurs, Lieberman is ready to pounce. And who -- except the DLC and Mrs. Lieberman -- wants that?

Let me first note some Lieberman positives. He has tended to have a strong record on environmental matters. He recently joined with Republican Senator John McCain to introduce legislation that would set up an independent commission to investigate intelligence failures related to Sept. 11 -- a move that was a slap in the face of the congressional intelligence committees, which rarely go far enough in investigating and overseeing the intelligence agencies. He can, at times, be a sharp opponent of the Bush Administration. (He called Bush's recent photo-op economic confab "more of a valley than a summit.") And he has kept the flame of Enron alive -- though barely -- as chairman of the governmental affairs committee, which is investigating the Enron mess (but not as quickly as many Democratic partisans would prefer.)

Yet none of that compensates for Lieberman's negatives. There's his self-righteous and quasi-censorious opposition to explicit music, movies and television shows. There's his self-righteousness about most things. There's his warmongering. (He recently called for Congress to grant Bush the authority to remove Saddam Hussein and leave it to Bush and the Pentagon to decide how to do that.) And there's his coziness with the DLC. But what moves me to alter my position on a Gore sequel is Lieberman's ingratitude.

A few weeks back, as the DLC was about to hold a convention in New York City, Lieberman invited several political reporters to an on-the-record chat. In their presence, he said that Democrats should not turn the recent corporate scandals into "an economic class conflict," and he argued that Gore's "people-versus-the-powerful" message in 2000 sent the wrong signal to middle-class voters and hurt the Democratic ticket. He noted -- boasted? -- that he had refrained from using such language during the campaign.

This was low-class. Lieberman would have happily ridden Gore's populist bandwagon into the White House. At the convention, he hailed Gore as a "man of vision and a man of values." Now, as he tries to corner the DLC market, he's claiming he didn't agree with Gore's vision. It's an unbecoming and all-too-obvious act of distancing.

It also is unsupported by the numbers, for Lieberman's political analysis is off. Did Gore's populism -- faux as it was -- scare off voters? Of all people, Lieberman should know that the Gore-Lieberman ticket bagged 540,000 more votes than Bush-Cheney, Inc. And if a Democratic election official in Palm Beach county had competently designed the ballot there, Populist Al and Loyal Joe would today be in the White House, no doubt chasing after special-interest evildoers. And look at the Ralph Nader results; nearly three million people voted for the true populist in the race. Add that number to the Gore-Lieberman tally, and a center-populist majority emerges.

Moreover, imagine if Gore had been an authentic populist. Would that have cost him and Lieberman any votes? Maybe a few -- among big-money Democratic contributors, who don't really want or expect their party's nominee to pursue the powerful. This is, of course, an insignificant voting bloc (though a highly significant focus group for a campaign treasurer). If Gore had really believed in populism -- and had possessed a record establishing his people-over-the-powerful credentials -- it's doubtful the voters who did pull the lever for him would have flocked to Bush instead. Those who voted for a campaign-convert populist probably would have supported the real thing.
Perhaps Nader-oriented voters would have done so, too. (This is not to suggest that populism is always a sure-thing for any Democrat. In 2000, Gore could also claim to be something of an incumbent running on peace and prosperity, and his foe was a do-little, syntax-challenged governor overly tight with the corporate crowd.)

Lieberman's shot at Gore appeared to be an attempt to suck up to the DLC and set himself up as the New Democrat for the 2004 contest. That probably will help Lieberman with fundraising. But it's an uncertain path toward assembling an electoral majority or plurality. The New Democrat gang can't bear to acknowledge that Gore, with his temporary embrace of populism, bagged more popular votes than any presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan. When Gore contends -- as he did in a New York Times op-ed a week after Lieberman's remarks -- that "standing up for 'the people, not the powerful' was the right choice in 2000," he has the math on his side. In that piece, he tossed a dig at Lieberman by saying, "The suggestion from some in our party that we should no longer speak that truth, especially at a time like this, strikes me as bad politics and, worse, wrong in principle."

A year back, there was talk in Democratic circles that Gore and Lieberman were considering reconstituting the Gore-Lieberman ticket for 2004. After the recent tussle, such a revival should be difficult. Political consumers seem to be facing an either/or situation -- thankfully. While it may be painful to have to listen to Gore's hollow populism once more -- and he apparently is sticking with it for the time being -- doing so may be the price of blocking a Lieberman bid. So if the entry of a feigned populist can mess up the plans of the DLC's main man, I say, Go for it, Al. Do it for the people.

David Corn is Washington editor of The Nation.

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