Are those the tones of "I Got You, Babe" I hear quietly but monotonously looping in the background? Is it 6 a.m. on Nov. 7, 2000, all over again in America? Is it nonstop wall-to-wall Gore vs. Bush? We may not, indeed, be living in a hellish political Groundhog Day. But the now de-whiskered kisser of Al Gore and the always-chipper Tipper have been seemingly popping up everywhere this past week.
After the squirrelly twosome appeared rat-a-tat on the Letterman, Barbara Walters, Larry King and Charlie Rose shows as well as in a parade of coast-to-coast bookstore signings, I half-expected to bump into them at the local Ralphs, handing out free samples of Ritz crackers and guacamole dip along with signed copies of their books.
But Al Gore's visits with us come quite suddenly and infrequently. After arguing he should govern the nation, the guy went AWOL as soon as Dubya took over. Grew a beard. Went off to Europe to pout. And fattened up on fettuccine Alfredo and bars of Toblerone. The "I'm-Fightin'-for-You" Al Gore: Nothing to say publicly as the White House (with some Democratic help) pushed through the budget-busting, most-extreme-ever transfer of wealth upward known as the Bush tax cuts. Mute as the Bushies capitalized on Sept. 11 to dole out billions in war-profiteering corporate welfare. Absent as the PATRIOT Act battered civil liberties. Invisible as America's just military response to the World Trade Center attacks got hijacked and repackaged as Endless War. In other words, Al Gore demonstrated absolute indifference to—no, make that disengagement from—the radical reshaping of the American political debate which—before the Florida debacle—he presumed to lead.
And then, a handful of weeks ago, just like Punxsutawney Phil darting his head out once a year to study his own shadow, Al Gore burrowed up unannounced at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club, nattering some tepid criticism of the Bush Iraq policy (firmly placing himself in the "maybe war" camp) and, in doing so, unofficially rolling out Phase One of his 2004 presidential campaign.
Gore then deftly paused for a few weeks, allowing the rest of the Jell-O Democrats to get squished in the midterms, and then, before the political remains of Gephardt and Daschle were even fully hosed away, he kick-started Phase Two: his current nationwide media blitz. Natch, Gore claims his TV tour is just about selling the book he and Tipper claim to have written (a soppy celebration of how diverse and enriching American family life has become now that little Cody has two mommies). "I'm going to sit down and decide whether or not I'm going to be a candidate over the holidays" is the line he coyly fed Salon.com and the legion of other interviewers this past month when asked if he's really running.
If you believe that, then you probably also believe almost everything else that Al Gore says. If so, you're a sap.
What? You think I'm one more member of the media chorus who won't give Al Gore a chance? That we all just love chuckling over what new political persona Al Gore will assume? Well, you're right. But we have our reasons.
Take Gore's latest supposed epiphany—that he now at least "reluctantly" supports universal, single-payer health care. Let me get this right. When Gore was first seated as vice president with Clinton in the White House and with both wings of Congress under Democratic control (for the first two years) and with a national Treasury on the verge of record surpluses, Big Al thought that national health care was a terrible—even dangerous—idea. Too big. Too unworkable. Too expensive. And as recently as during the 2000 primary, he relentlessly attacked rival Bill Bradley as some sort of soft-brained leftist when the former New Jersey senator presented his own rather modest national health-care plan. In doing so, Gore mocked and belittled whatever genuine enthusiasm and idealism that flickered among Bradley's mostly college-aged campaign workers.
And now Gore is out there sounding like some sort of Stockholm socialist? Now that his own monumental political malfeasance (and that of his party) has given away the entire government to the Republicans, now that the Treasury has been busted out, now that military spending is at an all-time high, now he's going to get us Swedish-style health care? (He and what army?)
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This is the Al Gore we all know—and all gang up on. The Gore who chides Dubya over Iraq but who was one of the 10 Democratic senators who voted authorization for Poppy Bush's Gulf War. The Gore who lectures on the wonders of multilateralism but who was once a zealous advocate and funder of the very unilateral contra war against Nicaragua. The Gore who now pens fuzzy volumes praising harmony and diversity but who—in the '80s—helped found the Democratic Leadership Council with the express aim of reducing the influence of liberal and especially black voters within his own party. The same Al Gore who was the first to reel out the race-baiting Willie Horton strategy—before the Republicans saw a dandy thing and appropriated it for themselves. (Despite those efforts, Jesse Jackson kicked Gore's rear in the 1998 primaries, vastly outpolling him.)
Maybe Gore really is just dawdling. Maybe he's smart enough to sense that the Democrats have so bungled things there's little incentive for him to face Bush again in 2004. Maybe he thinks some other schmuck should charge into those propellers while Gore saves up for what will be his final presidential run for 2008.
It matters little either way, as the alternatives are equally bleak. Daschle and Gephardt are repugnant. John Kerry already folded on Iraq. And John Edwards seems a Clinton clone. Potential "progressive" candidates such as Dennis Kucinich lack the sort of national organization needed for a serious presidential run. And the less serious Greens, meanwhile, flirt with disaster, toying with running former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney for president in 2004. Such a choice would guarantee a Green campaign mired in what writer Micah Sifry calls the "fever swamps" of paranoia around Sept. 11.
So in this matchlessly dreary political moment, the least Al Gore can do to marginally improve matters is to get his mug off the tube and dig back in to wherever he lurks between his pop-up appearances. Go grow another beard, Al. Or write another book. But please, please, don't run for president again.