DESPITE FORMER vice-president Al Gore’s recent spate of publicity, his fate recalls the opening lines of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. "Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that." Substitute Gore’s name for Jacob Marley’s and you’ll get a sense of where the 2000 Democratic nominee is politically. His heavily promoted new book, Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family (Henry Holt), which he co-wrote with his wife, Tipper, is ranked 3065 on Amazon.com. Such titles as Who’s Sorry Now: The True Story of a Stand-Up Guy (Dutton), a memoir by former The Sopranos actor Joe Pantoliano (1575 on Amazon’s list), is selling more copies, as is Steven Emerson’s anti-terrorist manifesto American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us (Free Press), which is at 1386. (In a painful irony, a book about George W. Bush, Bob Woodward’s Bush at War [Simon & Schuster], is second on Amazon’s list.) Meanwhile, a slew of Democratic insiders, such as speechwriter and consultant Robert Shrum as well as Gore’s former senior adviser Michael Whouley, have given up on him. Even his old pal, fundraiser Steve Grossman, is joining up with a political long shot, Governor Howard Dean of Vermont. In political terms, Gore is as dead as Marley.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, not for the politician who won the popular vote against Bush in 2000 and likely would have won in the Electoral College had not the justices of the US Supreme Court ruled against him. In the months after Bush was inaugurated, Gore established himself as a de facto government-in-exile — first quietly and then more vocally issuing statements critical of the Bush administration. By the time Gore was ready to enter the active political arena, he was supposed to be welcomed back by Democrats longing to regain what should have been theirs in 2000. But that hasn’t happened. The more media appearances Gore has made — ostensibly flogging his book, but make no mistake, it’s a political dry run — the worse he appears. From appearances with David Letterman on CBS, Larry King on CNN, and Barbara Walters on ABC to a spot on NBC’s Today show with Katie Couric, Gore’s appeal seems to diminish. He scored a few points on Letterman by joking about how 50.1 percent of the people feel that he screwed up and growing intentionally stiff and silent when Letterman asked him whether the events of 2000 made him angry — a variation of an old Gore joke where he acts robotic when asked to display personality. But he didn’t fare as well on most of the shows. He certainly didn’t help himself by first showing up late for Larry King Live, and then refusing to agree, when King pressed him, that he probably should have let President Bill Clinton campaign for him. Chuck Raasch, a political writer with the Gannett News Service, described the new Gore as very much "the Old Gore: Scripted, carefully parsed, with newly evolved imagery and positions on issues." The only praise he’s managed to score has come from an unwanted corner: public relations. PR Week’s December 2 issue designated Gore’s "charm offensive" the "PR Play of the Week."
It’s no surprise, then, that perennial Gore critics, such as the Washington Post’s Michael Kelly and National Review Online’s David Frum, have come in for attack, especially in view of several recent speeches designed to retool the old presidential candidate. Speaking to a Manhattan audience on November 13, for example, Gore announced that he had "reluctantly" concluded that the nation needs a Canadian-style single-payer health-care system. (This from the man who eviscerated former senator Bill Bradley during the 2000 Democratic presidential primary for saying the same thing.) Kelly and Frum have panned Gore during his book tour and faulted the former vice-president for his move to the left.
More interesting is the poor reception Gore is getting from generally liberal commentators. New York Times columnist Frank Rich faulted the would-be president for his performance with Couric, who, Rich wrote, uncovered "the old Al Gore lurking inside the latest model" in all of three minutes. Couric had a hard time pinning Gore down on how he would handle Saddam Hussein; when he finally answered her question, the best he could muster was a plan to call for a unanimous United Nations Security Council vote.
Likewise, LA Weekly editor-at-large Marc Cooper skewers this latest "progressive" version of Gore in the alternative paper’s November 29 issue. "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," writes Cooper. "Go grow another beard, Al. Or write another book. But please, please, don’t run for president again." Ouch.
Cooper’s sentiments are not unique among Democrats. A Los Angeles Times poll of Democratic National Committee members found that 48 percent opposed a 2004 presidential run by the former vice-president. Such a finding leads to one conclusion: Gore’s political prospects are dim at best. The poll, coupled with his less-than-warm reception by opinion leaders and his insistence on being coy about his intentions (he told Larry King, among others, that he’d make a decision about 2004 "over the holidays") means one thing: Gore is toast, but he doesn’t know it. The poor guy is an apparition, much like Dickens’s Marley. He wanders the earth from television station to television station, as if his political prospects were still alive.
Given Gore’s name recognition, if he does throw his hat into the ring, he instantly becomes the candidate to beat. A November poll by Quinnipiac University showed Gore with the support of a little less than one-third of American voters, followed by Hillary Rodham Clinton at 22 percent, Senate minority leader Tom Daschle with 11 percent, and Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, Massachusetts senator John Kerry, and Missouri congressman Richard Gephardt tied at eight percent. It sounds good until you consider that Gore was the Democratic nominee in 2000, and the popular-vote winner at that; he should be much higher than 32 percent. (A recent Washington Post poll of Democratic voters that didn’t include Hillary Clinton put Gore at 49 percent. Even so, 54 percent of those respondents said they opposed recycling the Gore-Lieberman ticket.) One thing is clear: other candidates aren’t afraid of him. On Sunday, Kerry announced his intention to form an exploratory committee, the precursor to a presidential run. Asked about Gore at a Boston press conference on Monday, Kerry said, "If I were daunted, I wouldn’t have announced what I announced yesterday."
All of which raises a question: what went wrong?