TCS Daily

Tricky Al

By James Pinkerton - December 16, 2002 12:00 AM

The congressman-turned-senator-turned-two-term vice president had just lost a presidential election, but he was still a young and vigorous man. And because he was defeated by the narrowest of margins - many in his party thought he had been robbed of his victory by funny vote counting in a big state - he had a lot of moral standing within his party. Indeed, his defeat would become a rallying cry within his party, a bitter memory to be invoked whenever the regulars needed to be stirred up. But because he was seen as an unlovable, even unlikable figure, there was little real enthusiasm for his next presidential candidacy. So he wisely announced that he would sit out the next election.

Does that sound like Al Gore, who took himself out of the running for the 2004 Democratic nomination on Sunday night? Sure it does. But it also sounds like Richard Nixon, who took himself out of the running for the 1964 Republican nomination. Having served as Dwight Eisenhower's vice president for eight years, Nixon was still only 47 when he was barely edged for the presidency by John Kennedy in 1960. Moreover, some state ballot totals were suspiciously thin; the Republican nominee lost Mayor Daley's Illinois by just 8758 ballots out of nearly 4.8 million cast. But Nixon was a good sport about his loss, eschewing protests and recounts.

Full of boundless ambition, he chose not to run again in 1964; after all, throughout modern American history, most elected presidents have won re-election, and President Kennedy looked strong. And after JFK was assassinated in late 1963, the emotional wave of support for the Democrats doomed any Republican the following year. So Nixon was happy to let Barry Goldwater go down to defeat in '64 - and even happier to see that the defeat was so huge that the Arizonan was permanently discredited for any future presidential run.

Besides, he had some image-rehab to do. He was derided by the political left and much of the press as "Tricky Dick" - not the sort of moniker one associates with the words "presidential timber." So during the course of the '60s, he played elder statesman, writing and saying thoughtful things; the mere fact that he wasn't a candidate gave him the valuable status of being "above politics." He was, the pundits said, the "New Nixon." Yet immediately after Goldwater's loss, he cranked himself up again, hiring a new team of eager political beavers, including a young newspaper editorialist by the name of Patrick J. Buchanan. Nixon was a GOP star in the 1966 midterm elections, ceaselessly campaigning for other Republicans, gathering political chits along the way. And so as GOPers looked for a "moderate" candidate to lead them back to the White House - Goldwater's ideological heir, freshman Governor Ronald Reagan of California, was deemed too conservative - the party establishment united around the new and improved Nixon. He was the frontrunner beginning in 1967, and breezed to the nomination the following year. The general election was another squeaker, but he won that, too.

To be sure, the Gore=Nixon parallel isn't perfect. Nixon ran and lost for governor of California in 1962, and Gore, in contrast to Nixon, fought the 2000 election results to the five-week bitter end.

But the mere fact that Gore took himself out of contention for 2004 shows that he's thinking. Yes, he was running vastly ahead of any other Democratic rival, but he was regarded as smarmy and unctuous and opportunistic. And not without reason; in 2000, he chopped up competitor Bill Bradley in the Democratic primaries for endorsing universal national health insurance - although in 2002 he embraced the same position. And "Tricky Al" could see other indicators, too, that the public was not yearning for him; he and his wife Tipper published two books this year, and despite a massive publicity blitz, neither was much of a seller. One of them, Joined at the Heart, was ranked #1330 on the sales ranking on December 15, while the other, The Spirit of Family, was ranked #2292. Meanwhile, the polls showed him losing to George W. Bush in a hypothetical presidential rematch by 20 points or more. So what was the point of spending four years staying in Holiday Inns, eating rubber chickens, only to lose again in November 2004? As Dick Morris said on Fox News Sunday night, "Gore would rather be remembered for having been cheated, not clobbered."

But now, by taking himself out of the running, Gore can bask in the praise of fellow Democrats. In private, his fellow Democrats might have regarded him as a turkey, but in public, they were full of praise; Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, an '04 hopeful, immediately lauded him, expressing the hope that he "will continue to be a valuable contributor to the national dialogue." And Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, another wannabe, was even more praising: "We all owe Al enormous gratitude for years of dedicated and exemplary public service and for his significant contributions to our party and country." If the Tennessean generates enough praise like that, in a few years pundits will be talking about the "New Gore."

Of course, Gore's strategy of strategic redeployment to the sidelines could backfire. President Bush is riding high right now, and looks strong for re-election but things can change quickly. One might consider the fate of John Kennedy or, for that matter, the fate of Bush's own father, a high-rider turned one-termer. If the Democrats manage to win in 2004 with another candidate, Gore will no doubt kick himself, but the historical record suggests that Bush is the strong favorite for a second term; in the 20th century, elected presidents ran for re-election 13 times, and were successful in nine of those endeavors.

But assuming that Bush keeps Dick Cheney on the ticket as he is re-elected, it's likely that the 2008 election will be a different story. Since Cheney is unlikely to be a candidate in his own right, the '08 election could be the first contest since 1952 to lack a Presidential or Vice-Presidential incumbent whatsoever. And in that half-century-ago election, the party that had held the White House was defeated.

In fact, Gore will turn 60 in 2008; he won't exactly be a spring chicken in that year, but this is a world where men a great deal older - from Don Rumsfeld to Alan Greenspan to William Donaldson, the designate to chair the Securities and Exchange Commission - are alive and spry.

So what's not to like?

Gore's biggest problem is that other top Democrats seem to be making the same calculation - that it's best to sit out '04 and wait for '08. And one of them is named Hillary Rodham Clinton. Imagine Nixon having to run for the GOP nomination against a Senator who was also Mrs. Dwight Eisenhower in 1968. That would have been a challenge requiring all of Nixon's trickery to overcome. And Nixon had more tricks than Al Gore ever will.



TCS Daily Archives