When Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean's presidential bid on Tuesday, it was the most excitement Gore has generated since... since... well, the last time - whenever that was. Well, that's a bit unfair. For a sizable group of Democrats, Al Gore gets the blood pumping. For the rest of us, he's the human incarnation of footnotes: dry data compressed into an amazingly dull format.
"The Simpsons" said it best when Bart's friend Martin bought a talking Al Gore doll. When you pull the string on the doll's back it says, "You are hearing me talk."
No one knows what string Howard Dean pulled to get Al Gore to endorse him, but there's no denying the excitement it's caused. Washington is atwitter with Kremlinology about the inner workings of that riot of ambitions we call the Democratic Party.
Is Al Gore vying for secretary of state in a Dean administration? Is he positioning himself as the leftwing alternative to Hillary Clinton in a 2008 run? Does he think Dean will lose and that he will inherit Dean's activist supporters? Is this a way to once again make it clear that Bill Clinton is off Al Gore's Christmas card list?
After all, Hillary has come out as a centrist hawk on the war on terrorism and on Iraq, while Al Gore has continued to drift further and further out to sea in his angry denunciations of everything George Bush says or does, even when Bush takes positions the old, moderately hawkish, Al Gore championed, like nation-building.
The problem with all this speculation is that nobody knows the answer. Too often, professional commentators and private citizens believe they can conclude motives from actions, that they can connect the dots of what is known and figure out what is unknown.
Sometimes that's possible. More often it leads to goofy conspiracy theories or absurdly elaborate plots when the true story is pretty simple or even pretty elaborate but just different from the way things seem in public.
Whenever I hear C-Span callers or, say, Barbra Streisand opine that the Iraq war was fought for the benefit of Haliburton, my immediate reaction is that these people need to understand that life isn't a cartoon.
So, I confess, I don't know why Gore is doing what he's doing. And, from what I've read, no one else does either (besides, there's plenty of time to write about the 2008 campaign or President-elect Dean's - shudder Cabinet). So while Gore's motives may still be concealed behind the lead-casing of his android skull, the meaning of what he's doing is fair game for everyone.
The angle I find particularly fascinating is the one illuminated by Gore's treatment of Joe Lieberman, also a Democratic candidate. Never mind the spectacular ungraciousness of Gore not giving his 2000 runningmate the courtesy of a phone call - Lieberman learned of Gore's endorsement from the press.
Instead, think about what this says about a man who spent almost his entire life running for president as a moderate, reasonable centrist in the "New Democrat" mold.
In 2000 Al Gore insisted that Joe Lieberman was the most qualified man to fill his shoes should a President Gore be unable to complete his term. Obviously, politics were a consideration, but Gore nonetheless made the plausible and necessary case that Lieberman was the best man to take his place.
Since then we've been brutally attacked on our own soil, we've fought two conventional wars and we are continuing to fight a third on global terrorism. In the time since then, Joe Lieberman has been at the forefront of the war on terrorism in the Senate. He was pretty much the original drafter of the Department of Homeland Security, and in 2001 and 2002 he was the chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs committee. In short, not only is Lieberman more qualified than he was in 2000, but the things that made him qualified to be Al Gore's stand-in back then are all the more important after 9/11.
Meanwhile, Howard Dean was still an ex-governor of the second smallest state in 2000 and nothing he's done since then has made him any more qualified to be president. Like many of his fellow contenders, he sees the war on terrorism as a law enforcement issue. He sees nation-building (once an important issue for Gore) in Iraq to be so much imperial folly. Dean ridicules pretty much all of the centrist positions on defense and domestic policy that both Gore and Lieberman used to be synonymous with.
I understand Gore sees in Dean one qualification Lieberman doesn't have: the potential to win. But when you think about all that has happened since 9/11, for Gore to say that the post-9/11 world makes Howard Dean more, not less, qualified to be president than Joe Lieberman really shows how unserious Al Gore and his party have become.