AL GORE IS back. At the Democratic State Convention in Florida, Gore, newly shaven, declared that he was at last speaking out against George W. Bush because ''I've had it.'' At Vanderbilt University on Earth Day, Gore flayed Bush's environmental record.
But Gore may find that a lot of voters have had it - with him. Where was he when we needed him?
Gore might have spoken out, say, when the Republicans were stealing Florida. He might have spoken out to demand a statewide recount and to lead outraged rank-and-file Democratic activists instead of sending them home. Or when Bush pushed through a $1.35 billion tax cut that will undermine public services for a generation. Or when Bush was AWOL while the Israel-Palestine conflict built to a festering catastrophe.
This spontaneous reentry, like so much else about the man, was carefully choreographed, right down to the follow-up New York Times op-ed and the Earth Day speech at Vanderbilt. In truth, Gore has been in the presidential race since last June, quietly going around raising money from big donors. The only question of when he would at last ''speak'' out was a tactical consideration of the timing, venue, and topic.
Doesn't he deserve a rematch? After all, Gore did outpoll Bush. But he should have won going away. If he couldn't win as vice president, with inflation slain and unemployment at 3.9 percent, after nearly eight years of peace and prosperity, after Democrats got rid of Republican deficits, against a weak and callow Texas governor, how will he beat a popular wartime incumbent?
For the next 30 months, we will be hearing the familiar drone that failed to rouse voter excitement last time. We will be treated to a kaleidoscope of different personal styles, sartorial strategies, and variations on poll-tested, risk-averse slogans, all lacking the intuitive political touch.
I know, I know: Nader did it to Gore. Clinton did it. The Electoral College did it.
But in reality, Gore did it. He just wasn't a compelling candidate. In three different debates we saw three different Al Gores. He had the issues on his side; they ran far better than he did. He had the money. He had an army of labor volunteers doing their utmost to spare us George W. Bush. What he didn't have was voter enthusiasm.
You have to feel a little compassion for Gore. For one thing, he had the misfortune to run in the shadow of one of the most gifted of natural politicians (and personal reprobates) of all time, Bill Clinton. Gore, by contrast, seems unnatural almost to the point of robotic. The cruel irony is that Gore is a man of private decency and honor. Clinton, an effective public man, is a private rogue.
Gore, unlike a lot of blow-dried politicians, is actually serious, even passionate, about issues. But he seems unable to translate his concerns for the public weal into convincing public politics. If he were a ballplayer, he would be famous for clutching.
Seldom in American politics has there been a better prepared, more experienced, more public-spirited man who was a worse candidate. Against Gore, Michael Dukakis sounded like Pericles and Walter Mondale was William Jennings Bryan.
Not that the rest of the Democratic field is all that much to celebrate. The most interesting candidates are the way-outsiders - Vermont Governor Howard Dean, an effective progressive who comes across as a reassuring moderate, and Senator John Edwards, who got elected from North Carolina as a populist.
Both are long shots. But both are far more engaging than Gore. As is John Kerry. As are Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt. Even the painfully gray Governor Gray Davis of California is not so gray as Gore.
I've asked several political pros why anybody would support Gore after the disappointing race he ran. To a person, they replied: He will have the money, the name recognition, and the support of party insiders who believe he has earned another shot.
A number of wealthy donors whom Gore has assiduously befriended over the years say they privately wish he wouldn't run. But they don't have the nerve to refuse to write him a check.
Isn't this exactly what's killing the Democratic Party? To win, a candidate needs more than insider support and money.
He needs to rouse voters. Gore just doesn't.
Possibly the most eloquent thing Al Gore said in the 2000 campaign came in his concession speech: ''It's time for me to go.''
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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