Of Al Gore's stunning endorsement of Howard Dean, even before the Iowa Caucus, it may be said, Richard Nixon would have been impressed. For Gore is executing with boldness and coldness a comeback strategy identical to the one Nixon engineered 40 years ago.
The parallels come instantly to mind. In 1960, Richard Nixon, a two-term vice president, was seen as having been cheated of the White House by vote fraud in Illinois and Texas.
But though most Republicans still admired Nixon, many felt he had booted victory away by not being tough enough on JFK. By 1964, conservatives wanted one of their own. They had said goodbye to Nixon, as Democrats seemed to have said goodbye this year to Al Gore.
After maneuvering for a deadlock between the Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller wings in 1964, from which he might emerge as a compromise candidate, Nixon shoved his chips in and went all out for Goldwater. He gave the nominating speech at the Cow Palace and, as Rockefeller sat on his hands, campaigned as hard for the Arizona senator as Barry Goldwater did for himself.
Goldwaterites remembered Nixon had stood by their man when other abandoned him. Thus, when Nixon entered the lists himself in 1968, the conservatives moved behind him. He locked up the nomination before a new conservative champion, one Ronald Reagan, could organize to enter the primaries.
Gore has adopted the same strategy. Seeing Howard Dean as the party nominee, he has bet his future in national politics on making himself a hero to the Dean Machine. Look for Gore to have a major role at the Boston Convention, keynoting or nominating Dean, and to campaign for the ticket across the country, piling up IOUs.
Should Dean win, Gore can probably have any position he wants, including secretary of state. Should Dean lose, Gore is positioned to inherit Dean's estate. Should Gore choose to contest the nomination in 2008 with Hillary, he will be running to her left for the nomination. And, as Dean has shown again, the liberal wing of the party is the nominating wing.
But what astonishes is the ruthlessness with which Gore moved, cutting the legs from under his friend and running mate Joe Lieberman. Lieberman had said he would not run in 2004 if Gore ran. Now, Gore has said Howard Dean is a better man for America than the friend he felt should be a heartbeat away from the presidency in 2000.
Gore, as titular leader of the party, also undercut the campaigns of former allies Dick Gephardt and John Kerry. While he has advanced his own ambitions by endorsing Dean, he will pay a price with old friends who must feel a sense of betrayal that he moved against them before a primary vote had been cast.