It’s hard to see a downside for Howard Dean in Al Gore’s decision to back him for president. Question is, is there a downside for the Democratic Party?
As everybody has noted, Dean pretty much has a lock on the Democrats’ activist base; that’s why he’s the clear frontrunner. The question has always been whether he’s too liberal — though exactly
how liberal is a matter of debate — to appeal to the mainstream voters he would need to beat Bush. Gore’s backing gives him some much-needed centrist legitimacy.
How much legitimacy is unclear — because it’s unclear how centrist Gore really is. Hence, two basic lines of interpretation have emerged. One says that Gore, far from being a moderate, is actually a populist class-warrior, as will become clear when he starts stumping for Dean. As such, he makes Dean no more appealing with swing voters and they both go down together, realizing the worst fears of the Clintonite party establishment.
The other view — for now the conventional wisdom — sees Gore as an avatar of Democratic centrism who can swing the Party’s institutional clout behind Dean and make him less of a turn-off to middle-of-the-road voters.
What’s undeniable is that Gore’s support makes it a whole lot more likely that Dean, already leading the pack, will get the nomination. Dean has tapped into a deep vein of anger and resentment among Democrats that feeds on, among other things, memories of the Florida recount. Gore, obviously, keeps those memories alive. Gore is also popular with African-Americans, a largely Democratic constituency that Dean hasn’t had much success with to date, and the candidate will be hoping that some of that appeal rubs off on him. (It’s probably not coincidental that Gore chose to declare for Dean in Harlem.)
But how afraid should Republicans be? If — big if — Gore continues to be perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a centrist establishment Democrat, Dean will surely broaden his appeal.
The National Review thinks this is a real possibility:
“Looking at Dean now, one can see that he is the energetic/passionate/populist successor to Gore. Like it or not, that emotion resonates with Democratic voters. Will he be too hot for swing voters? Perhaps. But those folks weren’t necessarily turned off in 2000. Also, its more likely than not that Dean will appeal to the bulk of the Ralph Nader supporters next time around. Besides, Gore was the epitome of the “establishment” Democrat for years. In fact, one of the reasons why Clinton picked Gore in 1992 was because he was part of the Democratic elite (as well as being another southern member of the Democratic Leadership Committee). Gore’s blessing will now free other wary establishment Democrats to feel comfortable joining Dean.”
But Gore, since 2000, has been moving significantly to the left of the Clintonite center, whose power center is the DLC. Towards the end of his presidential bid he increasingly resorted to a kind of us versus them populism, which, to judge from his rare policy statements, he has retained. And, like Dean, he’s been consistently anti-war. Gore remarked on Monday that he wants to help “remake the Democratic Party.” He’s also an admirer of the way Dean has used the Internet to build support for his campaign. In Gore’s speech endorsing Dean he said Dean is:
“really is the only candidate who has been able to inspire at the grass-roots level all over the country.”
“Our country has been weakened in its ability to fight the war against terror because of the catastrophic mistake the Bush administration made in taking us into war in Iraq.”
But there are perils in this for the Democrats.
Joseph Lieberman, Gore’s running-mate in 2000, expressed surprise at Gore’s decision, saying,
“Al Gore has endorsed someone here who has taken positions diametrically opposite [of his former positions]. What really bothers me is that Al is supporting a candidate who is so fundamentally opposed to the basic transformation that Bill Clinton brought to this party in 1992.”
Gore’s movement to the left, says Andrew Sullivan, represents a fundamental split in the party—on the one side are the Clintons, and on the other, Gore, Dean, and the mad-as-hell activists. Could this lack of cohesion spell trouble for the Democrats?
“Above all, it reveals the real struggle within the Democratic Party. In 2000, Gore broke decisively with Clinton and the center.
Gore has emerged in these last few years as a real left-wing populist. He wants to soak the corporations, enlarge the welfare state, raise taxes and stand up for minority civil rights.
What you are seeing among the Democrats right now is therefore a classic right-left split, with the Clintons representing the right (and the party establishment) and Dean emerging as a left-wing threat to their power (using the web to foment his peasants’ revolt). Gore ran against Clinton last time (it’s what lost him the election, in my view); and it makes perfect sense for him to join the anti-Clinton insurrection now. Hillary’s positioning as a hawk might even have been a pre-emptive strike against Gore-Dean. So we have a real ideological split here, and the future of the Dems as a mainstream party is at stake.”
In fact, one (perhaps farfetched) line of reasoning has it that Gore endorsed Dean precisely because he doesn’t think he can beat Bush. Rather, it would set Gore up to run again in 2008—this time against Hillary Clinton, in a battle between the center and left of the Democratic party. The Christian Science Monitor quotes a Democratic insider: “There could well be a backlash in a week or so to what will be seen as an unprincipled act by a politician who has a personal interest in Democrats losing 2004.”
But the GOP may have something to worry about. Conservatives have been keeping a watchful eye on the twists and turns of Democratic party politics. The National Review points out that though conventional wisdom would say Kerry, Edwards or Clark would be more formidable opponents to Bush, Dean’s nomination could prove to be trouble:
“Regardless, based on recent history, one would think that an astute operative like Rove would actually prefer Kerry, Edwards, or Lieberman. In other words, bring on a senator! As a veteran Republican observer in D.C. points out: “How many incumbent presidents have beaten governors since 1960 (when primaries eclipsed caucuses as the main means of candidate selection)? Zero.” It’s true: 1976 (Gov. Carter defeats Pres. Ford); 1980 (Gov. Reagan beats Pres. Carter); 1992 (Gov. Clinton beats Pres. Bush).”