“I’m probably going to vote for Governor Bush,” my friend Matthew Cole said as we sat in a college cafeteria in October, 2000. “At least Bush is saying he’ll work with both Democrats and Republicans. Gore isn’t even acting like he will.”
I had that flashback while watching Al Gore endorse Howard Dean for president. Several times in his speech, Gore seemed to question the value of reaching beyond Democratic constituencies, saying Dean is the best candidate because he has grassroots support, and because he is the candidate most fervently against Bush-Cheney when it comes to the war.
The big media were in a tizzy, wondering what could have motivated Establishment Al to endorse the Washington-bashing firebrand from Vermont. By aligning himself with Dean and implicitly rebuking Lieberman, they asked, isn’t Gore trying to reinvent himself again?
Don’t let the pundits fool you; this is the same Al Gore we knew before, and his endorsement of Howard Dean should come as a surprise to no one. It was Candidate Gore who ran away from the peace and prosperity of the Clinton years. Despite being himself a son of privilege, Gore opted for the angry, divisive platform of “The People Versus The Powerful.”
Sound familiar? Class warfare has become a recurring battle cry, as Gore, like his endorsee, believes that the key to winning elections is appealing to the class resentment of the base first, and leaving voters in the middle to choose the least worst option.
The fault lines in the Democratic Party are now clear.
On one side, there is former President Clinton and General Clark. They believe the way to get elected is by inspiring Americans with a compelling and optimistic vision for the future. Their philosophy, as far as I can tell, is that voters will side with the candidate who best embodies a third way: strong on defense and education, tough on both violent criminals and elites who don’t play by the rules.
On the other side, there is the former Governor Dean and, now, MoveOn.org Spokesman Al Gore. They see American politics as a see-saw act in which each side piles as many interest groups as possible onto the far ends of the plank. They court the Nader-Kucinich vote, aspiring to lead a new, post-sanity Democratic Party that appeals to Americans all across the liberal spectrum.
According to the Dean-Gore wing, to work with Republicans is to commit heresy, to be Bush Lite. This, they say, is why we lost elections in 2002; In order to win, Democrats must remain diametrically opposed to the other side. For them, comparing the Republican-controlled congress to cockroaches wins partisan hearts, and is therefore laudable in aspiring world leaders.
This is why Gore couldn’t be bothered, even after obtaining the 2000 nomination, to offer even lip-service toward bipartisanship. He probably believes he lost not because he was too liberal or divisive, but rather, because he was muzzled too much, afraid to speak about guns and the environment, saddled with a centrist running mate whom he disagreed with on the issues. And now, after shedding all residual respectability afforded him by the trappings of the OVP, Gore has taken his final step out of the ideological closet and endorsed Howard Dean.
It’s also why Dean, who rails against the Washington establishment and constantly speaks about the need for change, pursued and received the endorsement of the ultimate insider, and the one who personifies more than anyone the party’s slide from Clintonian centrism.
And so, this week saw the first salvo of an ideological war. Two days after Hillary Clinton saturated the airwaves and boasted that she had voted for the Iraq war, Gore threw down the gauntlet, slammed the pro-war candidates and declared, “It’s time to remake the Democratic Party!”