The Nixonian strategy of Al Gore

Posted: Dec 11, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

But it is Gore's relationship with the Clintons that will be most adversely affected. For Gore's move puts him in contention for the 2008 nomination, should Dean lose. Most Democrats assumed that nomination would go, almost by default, to Hillary.

Now, the Clintons are boxed in by Gore's masterstroke.

They have said they will not endorse a candidate until the nomination battle is over. They will thus be idle bystanders while the eight Democrats are battling. And should Dean, as expected, win, he and his loyal followers will owe Bill and Hillary nothing. Indeed, many of them already see the Clintons as cool to their candidate and anxious to see him rejected by the convention -- and if not rejected, lose in 2004. That would clear the field for Hillary.

Now, the Clintons' interests in the 2008 nomination will force them to abandon a Rockefeller-style role of standing aloof from the nominee and force them to go all out for Dean if they wish to win over the Dean loyalists for Hillary in 2008.

All of which makes Gore's endorsement a coup for Dean. Not only has Gore given him the benediction of an establishment leader, Gore has credited Dean with being right on Iraq. Howard Dean "made the correct judgment about the Iraq war," said Gore, and had the "insight and courage to do the right thing."

It was a "mistake to get us into that quagmire over there."

"Quagmire"? Al Gore is saying Sens. Clinton, Kerry, Lieberman and Edwards, and Rep. Dick Gephardt blundered in giving George W. Bush a blank check for war. He has thus made the war the issue of the primaries of 2004, and perhaps of the election of 2008, when Gore obviously believes those who voted for the war will have much to answer for to history.

Al Gore has just declared his independence of the Clintons and may have fired the first shot in a Clinton-Gore battle for the soul of the Democratic Party in 2008. Well played.