Gore's need to separate himself from Clinton led to the best move of his campaign, the choice of a running mate whose chief claim to fame was a moralistic denunciation of the president during the impeachment debate. But the rest of the time, the psychological distance Gore demanded from Clinton was politically damaging. Whether or not Clinton himself would have been a major asset on the stump (I think he would have been), the Clinton-Gore record was the essential rationale for electing Al Gore as president. And even more than he needed Clinton's record, Gore needed Clinton's centrist politics, which brought the Democrats back to the White House after a long period in the wilderness.
Paradoxically, Gore's distanced himself from Clinton in part by tapping into Albert Sr.'s style of old-fashioned populism. Eschewing the kind of New Democratic moderation that elected Clinton twice, Gore brought on the class-warrior Bob Shrum and proceeded to vilify "powerful forces." He even tossed aside Clinton's New Democratic pollster Mark Penn in favor of Stanley Greenberg, the old Democrat Clinton fired after the 1994 debacle. I've often wondered how Gore managed to live through an eight-year tutorial with the most talented politician of the past 40 years and learn absolutely nothing. One former Gore aide I know compares the problem to playing basketball with Michael Jordan. When your talents fall so far short, watching the master of the game can be frustrating rather than edifying. I'd throw in the Oedipal explanation as well. Rather than learn from Clinton's mistakes, Gore preferred to make his own mistakes, and learn from them on his own.
Al Gore doesn't deserve all the vilification that may be about to be heaped on him. He has done a fine job as vice president and really does deserve credit for many of the administration's accomplishments. Although the ineptitude of his campaign was frustrating to his supporters, he tried to compensate for it by working his heart out. Had Bush lost by so narrow a margin, his defeat would have been attributable to laziness, a failing Bush has far more control over than Gore has over his. And if Gore is at fault, so are many of his aides, who we can expect will soon be pointing the finger elsewhere. And so, too, is the public, which failed to see through what are, in the scheme of things, superficial faults to elect the more capable, intelligent, and experienced man.
Illustrationby Robert Neubecker.
Photograph of Al Gore on the MSN Sidebar by Jim Bourg/Reuters.