Since the trauma of the 2000 election, the Democrats have endured a history of loss and defeat, not only of office and program, but identity, self-confidence and self-respect. As a congressional party that lost its majority in 2002, it has seemed to be in a nightmare that the party is incapable of escaping.
Republican bullying has been met almost inevitably by Democratic cowering, the ruthless will to power by timid retreat. Before this spectacle, Democratic voters have felt themselves unrepresented and voiceless. Until the presidential candidacy of Howard Dean, their burning sentiments lacked expression. Now, Al Gore's early endorsement of Dean dramatically amplifies them and partly explains them.
Above all, Democrats are consumed with a rising sense of injustice. They believe that democracy was undermined when the votes were not counted in Florida and the supreme court made George Bush president; that the social contract in place since the New Deal is being shredded; that internationalist alliances are being shattered; that the president lied about the reasons for war; that the Bush administration acts with authoritarian impunity (refusing, for example, to make public even the members of the vice-president's energy policy panel); and that the media is being overwhelmed by the din of a rightwing echo chamber that masks itself as journalism.
In the face of constant provocation, Democrats see their own party as hesitant, compromised, if not complicit, and cowardly. "You're either with us or the terrorists," Bush has repeated many times. The Democrats supported the war in Afghanistan. Most Democrats in the House and Senate backed the war resolution on Iraq. Yet none of this prevents Republicans from challenging their patriotism.
As recently as last week, after Senator Hillary Clinton, who voted for the Iraq war, returned from inspecting Afghanistan and Iraq as a member of the armed services committee, a Republican party flunky and Bush family retainer named Scott Reed was trotted out to smear the former first lady as "un-American" when she called for more troops and international support.
The Democrats' feelings for their congressional party are inextricably linked to their feelings for Bush. They saw Democratic legislators vote for regressive Bush tax cuts in the belief that it would insulate them from Republican assaults in the 2002 mid-term elections, only to see enough Democratic senators lose seats to tip the Senate. Time and again, even liberal lions such as Edward Kennedy have been bamboozled on education and Medicare.
The congressional Democrats have been in denial about Bush's conservative radicalism. They preferred to believe that fundamental comity still existed even when it was being smashed. They gathered no clue about the simmering among Democratic voters from the phenomenon of Senator Robert Byrd, a silver-maned irrelevance suddenly elevated to cult hero for his opposition to Bush on the Iraq war.
All the major Democratic candidates running for president from Congress voted for the war resolution. Only Dean - the sole non-congressional candidate - stood against it. The late entry, the former general Wesley Clark, flip-flopped on the war, in effect turning himself into a congressional Democrat, declared that he had voted for Nixon, Reagan and the elder Bush, and volunteered that he's for banning the burning of the US flag, a hoary Republican demagogic device.
Gore's endorsement of Dean is the most important since grainy film was shown at the 1992 Democratic convention depicting President Kennedy shaking hands with a teenage Bill Clinton. Gore's endorsement is not the passing of the torch to a new generation, but another conferring of legitimacy. For Democrats, he personifies the infamy of the last election. He is not another politician, but the rightfully elected president, by a popular majority of 539,895 votes.
But the Gore of today is not the Gore of 2000. The careful political figure trying to distance himself from Clinton and contorting his personality to project likability has been tempered by defeat. "If I had to do it all over again, I'd just let it rip," Gore said a year ago. "To hell with the polls, the tactics and all the rest. I would have poured out my heart and my vision for America's future."
Gore now calls the rightwing media a "fifth column" within journalism, and he's raising millions to build a TV network of his own as an alternative. In his own way, he's absorbed the lessons of the past three years and become a representative Democrat. His endorsement of Dean is his commentary on his campaign and the conduct of his party since.
· Sidney Blumenthal is former senior adviser to President Clinton and author of 'The Clinton Wars'
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003