Can Al Gore rouse the Democrats?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 26 2002 2:05 PM

Gore's War

Can Al Gore rouse the Democrats?

Speaking his mind
Speaking his mind

The default position on Al Gore appears to be ridicule. He opens his mouth and is immediately assumed cynical, tactical, self-serving, self-pitying, awkward, embarrassing, unintentionally hilarious, or all of the above. Much of this comes from Republicans, who seem afflicted by near-psychotic rhetorical twitching whenever the man who won the popular vote in the year 2000 makes a public appearance. This week, for example, an amoeba from the GOP National Committee stepped out and pronounced Gore's speech about Iraq "more appropriate for a political hack than a presidential candidate." But the press has been equally dismissive (including me). And so have many of his fellow Democrats.

A few months ago, Gore told some of his closest supporters that he'd made a mistake in the 2000 campaign by paying too much attention to "polls, tactics, and all the rest. … I should have let it rip, poured out my heart, and my vision … and let the chips fall where they may." These quite sensible remarks occasioned a small tornado of disdain from the press and political consultants. James Carville and others said, inaccurately, that Gore was blaming his consultants. He wasn't. He was blaming himself. It was, in fact, an altogether admirable pronouncement: Would that more politicians were able to distance themselves, from time to time, from their witch doctors. Perhaps a new campaign position should be created—angel's advocate: an adviser who counsels candidates to talk about the issues they really care about rather than pandering to the solipsistic laments of nitwit focus groups. But that's another story … or maybe it isn't.

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Because it seems that Gore has decided to be as good as his word. His Iraq speech this week was rather inconvenient for Democrats—especially those in Congress running for re-election, who have "decided" to take Iraq off the table as quickly as possible so they can go home and talk about prescription drug benefits for senior citizens and other issues that poll well. Indeed, it is now assumed that most Democrats will stow their doubts and better instincts and rush a vote in favor of the president's war resolution—because their political consultants are convinced that Iraq is a "bad" issue for them!

The unanimity of this conviction among consultants (and the willingness of commentators to buy into it) should give us pause. It is especially noxious because the issues the consultants want Democrats to run on—pandering to the elderly, demagoguing on entitlements, and blaming George W. Bush for the business cycle—are minuscule when compared to the decisions about to be taken by the Bush administration. This is not merely about Iraq: The White House is proposing a radical new military and diplomatic doctrine for the United States—the right to intervene, unilaterally and pre-emptively, whenever we see fit. This has actually been put into writing, into words so simple, the president has said, that "the boys in Lubbock can understand it."

And the Democrats don't want to talk about it? What can one say about such monumental fecklessness? Perhaps this: Any local candidate who refuses to address, in detail, these essential issues of war and peace is trying to distract the public from the most important national discussion since the end of the Cold War and therefore deserves to lose.

Al Gore's speech wasn't a masterpiece. It seemed hastily composed and rewritten (Gore has an unfortunate habit of pulling sweaty all-nighters before a major address). William Safire has noted some of the sloppy, contradictory thinking. And an argument can be made that there was politics involved—that Gore was positioning himself for 2004.

But raising an important issue for tactical effect is quite different from ignoring an issue for tactical convenience. Gore performed an essential public service. He nudged a necessary debate. And he raised a crucial distinction: A war against Iraq and the war on terrorism are not identical. Indeed, an immediate attack (in January, one assumes) on Saddam Hussein—which everyone expects, and we must hope, will result in a rapid success—could complicate the larger campaign. A successful war against Iraq raises at least three nettlesome questions:

Will it increase or decrease the threat of a biological or chemical attack on the United States?

Will it increase or decrease the stability of the region?

Will it increase or decrease the number of young Muslims who believe the prevailing propaganda about America's moral and spiritual role in the world?

Almost every politician I've spoken with—Democrat and Republican—has grave doubts about at least some of the details of the operation that we seem to be hurtling toward. After all, for the past 20 years it has been America's tacit but obvious policy to keep Saddam Hussein in power, weapons of mass destruction and all, because his removal was likely to destabilize the region. There are Kurds in the north of Iraq, Shiites (a majority of the population) in the south, Sunnis in between; their postwar loyalties and configurations are unpredictable. It is also quite probable that the next government in Iraq will not be perceived by its neighbors as the avatar of democracy and religious tolerance in the region, but as an American client state. The notion that the incipient pummeling of Baghdad will usher in an Islamic Enlightenment is laughable.

Furthermore, as the American military pieces are slowly wheeled into place for the campaign, Saddam's chemical and biological labs are likely to be shut down, the germs and gases that are transportable put in suitcases—and then sold or given away to the very people we fear.

And these are only the most obvious questions. Perhaps the president and his advisers have planned for all this and for the dozens of other profound issues raised by this proposed course of action. Perhaps they have devised the strategies that will assure the results we want. Perhaps they have answers that they can't share with us now.

But the recent history of American foreign policy—not just in this administration, but in the previous one as well—has not been marked by careful planning, long-range thinking, or attention to detail. The Clinton White House was plagued by intermittent focus on overseas issues, indecisiveness, and an inability to know when and how to use force. The Bush administration has pursued international policies that are at once cynical, ideological, and dangerously simplistic. The rush to open a new front in a complicated war, the tendency of conservatives (and their propagandists) to go berserk whenever legitimate questions are raised, the giddy moral certainty in the air, the fact that we are not talking about one quick war against an obvious psychopath but about actions—and a fundamental shift in American policy—that may well echo and shape the world for the next 50 years—all this should cause us to pause, slow down, talk this over.

Al Gore's speech was a good start. And more, it was a gauntlet wisely thrown. Those politicians—Democrat and Republican—who neglect these crucial issues now, for whatever reasons, should be taken at face value: Apparently, they have nothing of interest to say. We should remember their silence the next time they ask for our votes.

Joe Klein is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton.

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