The instant conventional wisdom flooding newspaper columns and the Internet says Al Gore’s support for Howard Dean has decided the Democratic presidential nomination before a single caucus or primary. Maybe – though Dean was well on his way to winning it anyway.
So, the questions. Why did Gore do it and why now?
First, Dean is beginning to break out in the polls nationally, but his lead is not yet insurmountable. By supporting him now, Gore might give Dean the edge he needs to win the Iowa caucuses (where he, and Rep. Dick Gephardt seem to be closely matched). Dean, a former governor of Vermont, is the clear favorite in another key early contest, the primary in neighboring New Hampshire, and victories in both of these venues could give him the momentum he needs to win it all. Gore could emerge looking like a king-maker.
Second, Dean seems to have worked hard for the last 15 months to win Gore’s endorsement, consulting with him regularly and seeking his advice on policy issues. Since Gore has ruled himself out this time around, he probably views Dean as the candidate closest to his own views, at least on Iraq. (Gore, let’s remember, warned last year, well before the start of hostilities, that invading Iraq would be a bad idea because it would distract the U.S. from the real war on terrorism against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida).
Third, Gore no doubt is thinking about the 2008 nomination. If things go badly for Bush in a second term – and the president certainly has laid the groundwork for some monumental problems – then Gore will have cemented his position as the liberal who told us so. In contrast, Hillary Clinton, who is universally assumed to be seeking the ’08 nomination, will have the baggage associated with her current centrist position, which won’t look much different than Bush’s to the Democratic faithful.
Finally, Gore no doubt is hoping that a strong Dean campaign – even if it falls short of winning the White House – will give the former veep a stronger hand in the Democratic party’s future. He did, after all, announce his endorsement in Harlem. (Let’s see – which former president has his office there?)
Backing Dean may seem like a high-risk strategy for Gore. Dean is routinely dissed by detractors within his own party as being unelectable for any of several reasons (temper, arrogance, too liberal, you name it), and he could turn out to be the 21st Century McGovern that many mainstream Democrats fear. But any Democratic strategy is going to be high-risk this time around, and in reality Gore has little to lose. He can either play the cards he holds or fold into obscurity as that presidential footnote: The guy who beat Bush in the popular vote but never made it to the White House.
Seems to me he made the right choice.
Here are some links:
-- The Washington Post's coverage of the Gore endorsement
-- Post media reporter Howard Kurtz's roundup of Gore coverage