Why the "New" Al Gore can't get elected.

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May 24 2006 7:06 PM

Gore, Retry, Fail

Why the "New" Al Gore can't get elected.

Who knew Al Gore could be such fun? He's the toast of Cannes and was hilarious on Saturday Night Live. He's also Topic A in political  conversation. A lot of Democrats start to sound a bit giddy when the subject of a Gore presidential run in 2008 comes up. Even with recent troubles in the GOP, many of them have been preoccupied with the weakness of their leaders and the party's uncertain future. When discussion turns to Gore, everyone gets excited.

At the center of the Gore boomlet is the New Al Gore. He's full of the vision and ass-kicking clarity for which Democratic activists are thirsting. Markos Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos, has praised the change, calling him "passionate, eloquent, and utterly suffused with energy." Arianna Huffington got the bug in Cannes: "When people are exposed to the new Gore—authentic, funny, self-deprecating—you can almost feel their relief and surprise as they suddenly come to face to face with what a real leader could be."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

This has got to be stirring for a guy who was essentially laughed out of town after losing the 2000 election. But Gore has yet to respond to the groundswell, according to those I've talked to who know Gore well. He's happy doing what he's doing and doesn't want to get drawn back into politics. "What Al Gore is doing now is living the life he always wanted to lead," says his former campaign manager, Donna Brazile. "He's a leading intellectual. He's talking about global warming. He's a venturecrat. He's leading the life I think a person like Al Gore would want to lead."

There are lots of other reasons that Gore probably shouldn't run, often articulated by inside-the-beltway types. A lot of Democrats still have sour feelings about a nominee who blew a winnable election. Gore never liked the day-to-day work of politics (as opposed to governing) and was a lousy campaigner. He struggled to beat a weak Bill Bradley in the 2000 Democratic primaries and lost to George Bush (sort of) with the wind of peace and prosperity at his back. In polls, voters still react to him as negatively as they do to Hillary Clinton, or even more so. He may provide a nice contrast to George Bush now, but Bush won't be on the ballot, and in 2008 the Republican nominee is likely to be running against Bush, too.

Gore hasn't shut the door on a candidacy. "I'm not planning to run," he has said. "There are other ways to serve." He's not planning to run but that doesn't leave out the possibility that he could be convinced to run. This makes sense. If you're going to be a draft candidate, you need to look reluctant. You need to let the cheers grow into a roar before you open your hotel window to speak to the crowd.

I will admit that I like the idea of Gore running for president. I'm a sucker for authenticity and prefer a candidate who speaks his mind (even my editor has made fun of me for this failing). But it seems to me that the hype about the New Gore poses a problem for him should he eventually decide to run: He can't sustain the authenticity that is fueling his bandwagon.

It's not that Gore is inherently dull. (And judiciousness could be a plus after the Bush years.) The problem is that the activists and bloggers most approving of Gore's "authenticity" also seem the least likely to allow any deviation from their definition of it. Campaigns require tactical compromises and prioritizing, even to achieve noble goals, and those acts are often seen as inauthentic and weak. Even Howard Dean, who is often praised for his genuineness, tailored his views on fiscal policy and entitlement reform to appeal to liberals in his party, a disconnect with his more conservative past. Gore's assessment of the last presidential elections suggest he still believes campaigns must be won by moving to the middle, a notion some in his party abhor. He knows about political shading. It's why he can craft that coy language about running in 2008. But if he does too much of this, he will disappoint his new allies.

Talk about the New Gore also builds upon a structural flaw of his last candidacy: Does he know his own mind? If what we're seeing now is the real Al Gore, why was he so easily swayed last time by advisers and pollsters bearing bad advice? If authenticity is just a political gambit, it's hardly authentic. The Old Gore vs. New Gore angle is likely to become a theme of the coverage if Gore runs. The press will remind us again and again about the 2000 campaign's earth-tone suits and the Great Dane kiss of Tipper at the convention and all the other inauthentic things he did to tailor his behavior to show people what he thought they wanted to see. The press will watch closely for signs of a relapse.

Hillary Clinton may solve this problem, at least to some extent. Gore may have no opportunity to return to his old ways, because if he runs, the opening for him will be to her left. That would act as a guardrail. If his populist heart ever faltered, political expediency would kick in, keeping him in the "New Gore" posture as he offered himself as a reformed character to those in the party who have a passionate dislike of Clintonian triangulation.

But crusading liberal is hardly who Al Gore really is. He long supported welfare reform, free-trade, and gave a speech promoting faith-based institutions in 2000 that was as supportive of them as George Bush was. How will he handle those old positions? Will he blow them off completely and risk looking like a hypocrite? Or will he revert to the trimming of the Old Al Gore? How will he respond to questions about a speech he gave in Saudi Arabia in which he very authentically criticized treatment of Arabs in the United States? When you're a candidate, the truth you spoke as a private citizen can become awfully inconvenient.