TCS Daily

Gore v. Clinton

By John Ellis - December 9, 2003 12:00 AM

Walk out on a limb with me here and assume that former Vermont Governor Howard Dean is defeated by President George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election. Who picks up the pieces?


The assumption has been that New York Senator Hillary Clinton does, quickly and efficiently, and in so doing becomes the de facto Democratic standard bearer for the 2008 campaign. "She's the nominee the day after Dean goes down," a Democratic friend told me this week. You would be hard-pressed to find seven people in political and media circles who disagree with that statement.


There is one man, however, who thinks that he will pick up the pieces after the 2004 Democratic debacle. His name is Al Gore, the former vice president and winner (in the popular vote) of the 2000 election. He chose not to run this time around, for obvious reasons, but left the door wide open for a Nixon-like return to the '08 campaign. And this week he all but announced his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination by endorsing Gov. Dean for president.


Today's endorsement is a transformational event in two respects; (1) it will make Gov. Dean the prohibitive favorite to win the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination and, (2) it will make you think differently about Al Gore.


From Gore's point of view, the latter piece is what matters. He's doing something no one expected him to do. He's throwing down the gauntlet in front of Hillary and her husband's hired hacks at the Democratic National Committee. And he's picking a fight with all the conventional wisdom ("Gore's finished") in the world.


It's a very shrewd move. Start with the least likely outcome. If Governor Dean defeats President Bush in 2004, Al Gore becomes Secretary of State or a Supreme Court Justice or whatever he wants, the day after the election is over. That's how much Dean will owe him.


If Dean loses, Gore will be the rightful heir to the Dean apparatus; the single most impressive fund-raising and organizing operation in Democratic Party politics. He'll inherit the only network that is capable of competing with and defeating the Clinton network, which it has by proxy in the Dean v. Clark competition. If politics is finally a matter of real estate, as Norman Mailer argued in his classic study of the 1968 conventions, then title to the Dean property is without question the single most valuable asset of the 2004 experience. It will be Gore's and Gore's alone on "the day after Dean goes down."


More important, by playing the role of uber-mentor to Dean's 2004 campaign, Gore can begin the process of reinventing himself and his candidacy for the 2008 campaign. He is known now as a semi-centrist, former vice president who lost the race he should have won in 2000 because he forgot about his home state and bored us all to tears. By itself, today's endorsement makes Gore "interesting" again, makes you want to know more about him and what he's thinking. Just as Nixon constructed a "new Nixon" in 1968 to make us forget about the old one, Gore now has the opportunity to reinvent himself for the 2008 campaign.


Ordinarily, we probably wouldn't be interested, but Gore does not come to his reinvention empty-handed. He brings with him the promise of a great political brawl.


And so the battle is joined; Gore vs. Clinton 2008 began on December 9th, 2003. It has been the subtext of the 2004 campaign to date. Now it's out in the open for all to see.

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