Tomorrow night Liza Minnelli returns," said Larry King on Wednesday night.
But while America held its breath, Al Gore was getting more airtime than "The
Bachelor." You could wake up to him and Tipper on the "Today" show. You could
drift off to dreamland watching him with Charlie Rose. The man who went AWOL in
defeat was back — to sell not one but two new books (Mr. Gore can leave no lily
ungilded) and, of course, himself.
The books celebrate The Family, the one cause every Democrat feels compelled to embrace after Monicagate. The reviews for the author are thumbs up. "He's even, if you can believe it, funny," said Barbara Walters. "I think you've gotten funnier in two years," gushed David Letterman to the former vice president. The new, post-wooden Gore is determined to be spontaneous if it kills him, and us. "I am just letting my hair down," he says, as in interview after interview he quotes a boomer mantra: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." From now on, he is going to "just let it rip" and "let the chips fall where they may." Next month he's a host on "Saturday Night Live."
But it took Katie Couric all of three minutes to uncover the old Al Gore lurking inside the latest model. When he protested that he wouldn't really, really decide whether to run for president until after the holidays, she spoke for many viewers by responding, "Why am I having a hard time believing that wholeheartedly?" Then came the Gore equivocation and hair-splitting that he perfected in the 2000 debates. Ms. Couric had to ask seven questions to pin him down on how he would "handle Saddam" if he were president. The answer? He said that President Bush was taking "the right course of action" by winning a unanimous Security Council vote. And now what? "I don't know where this goes from here," said Mr. Gore.
People don't change. Mr. Gore doesn't let the chips fall where they may; you can still spot him counting each one before doling them out. And of course he is still running for president. Polls of Democratic voters and politicians alike show that he remains the first choice of a plurality of them, and besides, what else does the guy, a political lifer, have to do with himself?
Republicans profess to be delighted at this prospect while non-Gore Democrats are despondent. They are united in their recognition that he is the least spontaneous presidential contender since Richard Nixon, who similarly kept rolling out "new" incarnations of his public persona after each defeat. But Nixon did bounce back, and from a worse setback than Mr. Gore's: He lost his own state even more embarrassingly, in a failed post-vice-presidency run for governor, and then threw a public temper tantrum to blame his own failings on the press. Six years later he took the White House anyway, at a time when the country and the party in power were both traumatized by a war without end.
So many have written off our former vice president in 2002 that the conventional wisdom could be as wrong about him as it was about the former vice president of 1962. Yet if Mr. Gore — or the tongue-tied party he all too perfectly embodies right now — is going to be taken seriously by voters, "I don't know where this goes from here" will hardly do.
What will? In the aftermath of the election, I received hundreds of e-mails from readers suggesting what Democrats might stand for today after standing for nothing brought them their Nov. 5 debacle. "It need not be such a complicated question," wrote one correspondent, cutting to the chase for many others. "Stand up honestly and courageously for workers, consumers, voters, investors, people who breathe air and drink water and eat food. Do what's best for them. Big business can take care of itself."
That traditional party ethic is embryonically reflected in the domestic policy staples emerging so far among pundits and most Democrats running for president, Mr. Gore included: some kind of universal health insurance (bothersome details and price tags to come during primary season), a fast Democratic tax cut for the non-rich in lieu of the slo-mo Bush windfall for the upper brackets, fights for the environment and civil liberties and against hard-right judicial appointments and corporate malfeasance.
But none of it addresses the reality of post-election-November 2002, when each day brings news that Osama bin Laden and his minions are alive and hard at work, that the F.B.I.'s counterterrorism efforts remain slack and that the war on Saddam Hussein has started "in everything but name," as ABC News put it on Wednesday night. At a time like this, in the words of Heather Hurlburt of The Washington Monthly, "a party that comes across as unserious about national security is permanently vulnerable, no matter how compelling its vision of domestic policy."
Not every Democratic politician is unserious about national security. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman notwithstanding, the most urgent voice this fall is that of Bob Graham of Florida, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Working from two realistic premises — that it's likely "we've only got about 60 days" before the Iraq war starts for keeps and that Saddam will pull every terrorist lever he can once it does — Senator Graham has been demanding concrete action, especially from an F.B.I. that he discovered still had not completed a strategic plan for coping with terrorism within the United States, first ordered up by Congress in 1999.
He further warns that Hezbollah and Hamas are at least as threatening as Al Qaeda to Americans both at home and abroad, especially once the war on Iraq is fully joined. In league with his Republican counterpart on the Intelligence Committee, Richard Shelby, he calls for the war on terror to be extended without further delay, whether by diplomacy or force, to Hezbollah training camps in Iran, Syria and the Syrian-controlled areas of Lebanon. He dismisses the bipartisan self-congratulation about Washington's panacea, a new Department of Homeland Security that may not be up and running for years and that even then will exclude the F.B.I. and C.I.A. "I don't think we have the time in the next 60 days to be moving organizational charts around," Senator Graham told CNN, later observing that this chaotic bureaucratic shuffle may actually bring us "some degree of lessened domestic security" at the moment of greatest urgency.
There might yet be a Democratic foreign policy to complement a national security
policy. But at this point an antiwar policy is hardly in the cards; the only party
leader who voted against the war resolution, Nancy Pelosi, is so easily distracted
by predictable attacks on her as a "San Francisco Democrat" that she is too busy
defending her own family bona fides (five children, five grandchildren) to say
much coherent about Iraq or anything else.
"The Democrats should start standing up for certain core principles that were historically Democratic principles under Truman, F.D.R., J.F.K. and, for that matter, Clinton," proposes Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton ambassador to the United Nations. "Democrats should go back to advocating strong support for democracy and human rights. Nor should they be afraid to use power to defend either American interests or values." Another core Democratic principle, as Mr. Holbrooke has long pointed out, is that America should seek to strengthen the U.N. — an approach that polls consistently show most Americans support. But such was the desperation of Democratic leaders to "move on" from Iraq and talk about the economy during the campaign that it is Colin Powell and Tony Blair, not they, who are now identified with pushing the administration toward the tough Security Council resolution it at first so strenuously resisted.
But the Democrats who signed on to this war have an opening now to stake out a position on where and how it will end. The Bush administration is internally conflicted on this crucial point — witness the mixed signals and frightening disarray in post-Taliban Afghanistan. When will we have won the war on Saddam? What kind of nation-building are we in favor of, and at what sacrifice? What is Plan B if the Middle East doesn't fall into place after regime change in Baghdad? The list of questions crying out for Democratic answers is as long as the list of fears that shadow America during holiday season 2002. At the very least Mr. Gore, the only Democrat to command a media spotlight at this pivotal moment, might speak up about "where this goes from here" rather than playing peek-a-boo about where he goes from here. Even if he is on hold, history is not.
Copyright 2002, New York Times Company