WASHINGTON -- James Carville, ferociously partisan, seldom fires
on a fellow Democrat. Nevertheless, he was not pleased by Al Gore's
performance in Memphis last weekend. "I've heard of political consultants
(who) advise a candidate to go negative on another candidate," Carville said
on CNN's "Crossfire." "This is the first time I've seen a candidate go
negative on a political consultant."
At a three-day "retreat" with carefully selected donors and
fund-raisers, Gore delivered an extraordinary explanation for why he is not
president of the United States. He would "shed the constraint" on him
imposed by consultants if he runs in 2004. In other words, bad advice -- not
the candidate himself -- lost the election. While that triggered a standing
ovation from diehard supporters in Memphis, it has not played well across
the country as Democratic activists chewed over comments by their once and
possibly future leader.
Their conclusion: It was the same old Gore, re-inventing
himself. He had trumped his ace, obscuring his frontal attack on George W.
Bush's presidency with meditations on an old campaign. Democratic despair is
that Gore, relying mainly on name identification, may sweep through a
foreshortened primary election schedule as a second-chance nominee who may
repeat the failures of William Jennings Bryan and Adlai E. Stevenson.
The gathering in Memphis was an indication of how far Gore has
traveled down the road toward another candidacy. Some 60 men and women there
were not invited for political sagacity but for their bank accounts and
their loyalty to the former vice president. It is remarkable that in facing
so docile an audience, he felt compelled to put the blame for the 2000
outcome on somebody else.
Gore named no names, but the consensus is that he was pointing
at Bob Shrum and Tad Devine, partners in a Washington-based consulting firm
with a consistent record of success. Shrum and Devine have had little
contact with Gore since working for him in 2000, but they have refused to
utter a word critical of their former client. When I asked Devine whether he
was Gore's target, Devine replied: "I just don't want to get into that.
You're going to have to ask him (Gore) about that. I don't know who he was
Donna Brazile, the former vice president's 2000 campaign
manager, backed Gore by suggesting he "received some bad advice from some of
the consultants." "What bad advice?" I asked. "The advice not to campaign
hard in Tennessee." The accusation that Gore lost his home state -- and
therefore the election -- because of consultants, ignores the fact Tennessee
was delegated to the care of local Democrats. Expenditure of $1 million and
a late campaign stop could not endear Gore to his fellow Tennesseeans.
In fact, the consultants revived a moribund Gore campaign, with
Bush far ahead in the polls when Devine went to Nashville to perform
political surgery. Gore's own polls showed he had moved ahead by 5
percentage points just before his feckless performance in the first debate.
The fault was not the campaign's but the candidate's.
The most influential adviser for 2000 figures to exert the same
influence for 2004: Karenna Gore Schiff. She is blamed for Gore's
mid-campaign decision to dress in shades of brown. Mrs. Schiff is behind the
current push to propel her father into another campaign and was the apparent
architect of the Memphis festivities.
I asked several prominent Democrats their opinion of what Gore
said last weekend, and found all highly critical and none willing to go on
record. One senior member of the House, respected in Democratic circles,
said: "The wrong thing for Al Gore to do is to try to re-invent himself. I
cannot think of a worse idea for him." Yet, he added, if he must predict the
2004 nominee this early, it would be Gore.
The one element Gore has right is that the Democratic faithful
are more than ready to end bipartisan support for President Bush's conduct
of the war on terrorism. But they would like Gore to lower his voice, stop
complaining about his advisers and maybe shed a few pounds. Perhaps he needs
help from political consultants.