Same old Gore

Robert Novak

7/5/2002 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
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 talking about." 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.