The Gore Effect on the Field

All the polling and punditry about whether Al Gore will jump into the presidential race misses the point. Talking to some of his closest friends reminds me of what I have long known: Gore would rather be revered than merely elected. He aims to do something noble (Nobel, as it turns out) and was never convinced that sullying his soul on the campaign trail was the way to do it. So now, why run when you are, at least in the Democratic Party, the functional equivalent of Queen Victoria and the Archbishop of Canterbury?

The Democrats have an interesting problem this year. They have a high-profile constellation of four former presidents and presidential candidates to deal with: Gore, Jimmy Carter, John Kerry (who is running for re-election to the Senate this time around) and, of course, Bill Clinton.

By accident and intention, there is nothing similar on the GOP side, where former presidents and candidates tend to keep their mouths shut and mostly disappear. Led by the vocal Carter (and that irrepressible showman, Clinton), Democrats have abandoned that tradition. It's like these guys will never leave, which is a mixed blessing for the party and for the nominee, whoever she or he is. The choreography of the Democrats' convention next summer in Denver should be intriguing. Who will get what time slot? And what do you do with them in the fall? And do you want them if they are tempted—as some will be—to carp about your failures to live up to their lofty standards?

Not everyone has given up on the idea of Gore running. Perhaps the last true believer, ironically, is Carter. "I know that Carter has called Gore time after time and told him to do it," said a friend of both men. Gore told a close confidant a year ago that he would not run. "He said that, after years of work, he had finally gotten the global-warming issue to the top of the world's agenda," this person told me. "He said that the only thing that could ruin his achievement was to then run for president. Also, frankly, he had come to the conclusion, after a lot of experience, that he really wasn't all that good as a candidate."

So Gore is now the object of what amounts to a one-man primary to win his endorsement. It must have pained Sen. Hillary Clinton no end (there is no love lost between them) when he was named co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize; she was gracious and laudatory in the congratulations she offered him. Even so, the chances are less than zero that he will endorse her in the run-up to the primaries. Everyone assumes that he will endorse Sen. Barack Obama, if for no other reason than Obama is not Hillary. I think it's possible that Gore won't endorse anyone before the spring. He thinks of himself not just as a Democrat, but as an independent planetary moral force. The drama could be over whether the Democratic nominee gets his endorsement, and what that nominee has to say and promise to do so.

The environment isn't the only thing he cares about, by the way. He has gone farther than the big-three Democratic contenders on health care. He says favors the full deal: a "single-payer," government-run health-care system for all, similar to what they have in Canada and Europe. Most Americans favor that idea, actually, though the Democrats shy away from it. Part of the reason is the nightmarish folk memory of the "Hillary Health Care" fiasco of 1994. And there is a legitimate concern that selling "big government" is still a loser—even if it is the Bush administration that has further tarnished what little reputation for efficacy "big government" used to have.

There probably isn't much downside to a Gore endorsement in the general election. People who are infuriated by his stance on global warming are probably already going to vote Republican. Even the auto industry in Michigan is determined to go green. Hell, if Gore somehow decided to endorse Ford, GM and Chrysler, the champagne corks would be popping in downtown Detroit.

Carter is a trickier deal. Despite his achievements in the Camp David accords, supporters of Israel loathe him, seeing him as little more than a shill for the Arab-Muslim world. Most of the rest of America views him kindly—but Carter has a penchant for making unpredictable pronouncements that might give any Democratic nominee pause. Also, after the 9/11 attacks and in a world where Islamic jihadists regularly call for the destruction not only of Israel but of the United States (not to mention the establishment of a new caliphate from Portugal to Indonesia), Carter's stance on the Middle East can be a little complicated to explain.

Carter isn't endorsing anyone in the primary season—perhaps in part because he isn't sure if any of the leading contenders would want him. "He could endorse Joe Biden and sink his campaign," joked a friend of Carter's, who asked to remain anonymous so that he could use frank humor.

There's no question Gore will get a prime-time spot in Denver. In fact, I can almost imagine him sitting on a throne upstage, orb and scepter in hand, presiding over the proceedings. If Hillary is the nominee, will Bill Clinton mind? Nope. He'll be too busy speaking to the crowd.