A year from now, it could be President Dean after all

Posted: Dec 11, 2003 12:00 AM

All's fair in love and war - and politics.

The teeming multitudes who have been dreaming about how good things would be if the 2000 presidential election had gone the other way can wake up now: Al Gore is back.

This is the guy who told us that he and Tipper were the prototypes for "Love Story" despite denials by author Erich Segal, and that he invented the Internet - remember? Currently, he is trying to set up a liberal network to counter Fox News, evidently not understanding that liberalism is the ideological diet on which all the other networks feed.

So on Tuesday, in Harlem and Iowa, there was long-haired Alpha Al (these days he's evidently seeking to present as an intellectual, and never mind that he couldn't make it through Harvard Divinity School), signifying for Howard Dean.

That may seem incongruous, the ultimate inside-the-Beltwayist endorsing the ultimate outsider - verily, a candidate who has made his way thus far from Vermont blasting precisely the Establishment Gore paradigmatically represents. It all invites the mind to recall the Berenstain Bears book, "Inside, Outside, Upside Down."

And now all the endlessly knowing anchorpersons and news bunnies, who knew Howard Dean would be the first Democratic presidential wannabe to bite the dust, are intoning that the Gore endorsement seals Dean's nomination.

That is not quite right.

Rather than securing Dean's nomination, Gore's endorsement confirms the obvious - that Dean will be the nominee. (What's more, the Internet conspiracy theorists will have a wild time of it, because Dean apparently has been cultivating Gore by phone for months - the Gore endorsement apparently a done deal for several weeks.) If Dean were not loping ahead of the Democratic pack in fund-raising, and were he not rocking in the polls (ahead by 30 points in New Hampshire alone), Al Gore would not be out there endorsing him.

The Gore endorsement tells us a number of other things: (1) that Gore is showing his own true leftism as a man uninterested in even Democratic moderation; (2) that three years ago he picked Joe Lieberman to be his running-mate because he needed on the ticket not only a geographical but an ideological counterpoise; (3) that ideological simpatico (with Dean) is ultimately more important to him than loyalty (to Lieberman, who waited for Gore to decide not to run before declaring his own candidacy);

(4) That endorsing Dean marks Gore's liberation from the influence of the Clintons, whom he never has liked personally, politically or ideologically; and (5) that Gore still has not gotten over his loss three years ago and sees Dean as his best tool for sticking it to not only the Clintons but George Bush.

A quote by an anonymous Democratic operative sums it up:

It's either Al Gore unplugged: "Look at me! I don't need any advisers. I'm my own guy. I don't have to put my finger to the wind and I can do unconventional things." Or it's that Dean draws the sharpest contrast with Bush, and that's the attraction.

The Democratic race has given us - let's see:

- A series of debates that have proven nothing quite so much as the ideological extremism of all except Lieberman.

- The collapse of John F. Kerry, another Massachusetts senator with magic initials, who has said hardly anything of substance except to impugn the patriotism of President Bush ("I left some blood on a battlefield that President Bush never left anywhere").

- The late entry of Gen. Wesley Clark, a stalking horse for the Clintons (and, like Bill Clinton, an Arkansas Rhodes Scholar), who has demonstrated his abiding intelligence (a) during the Clinton presidency by lecturing his staff officers on Clinton's many virtues, and (b) prior to Iraqi hostilities by predicting American losses in the thousands.

- The retreat of the Democrats on the economy after Alan Greenspan cited the "astonishing" tide of solid economic news.

- Dean (a) opposing parental notification on the grounds that he once treated a 12-year-old impregnated by her father, (b) defending his sealing of his gubernatorial papers, (c) resurrecting the confederate-flag issue, and (d) opposing right-to-work ("I hate right-to-work laws. ... It's OK to be forced to join a union." Yet.

- The ineluctable building of steam by the Dean machine.

Gore's endorsement is but the latest indicator that Howard Dean will be the Democratic presidential nominee. Unless Hillary jumps into the race (she's the only Democrat who can with any prospect of success, and it's getting late for that to happen - 2008 likely will be her year), it looks 11 months out as though the 2004 race will be between Bush and Dean (with perhaps Gore or Hillary as his running-mate).

In such a race, is Bush the shoo-in that many suggest? Hear this, from the Weekly Standard's William Kristol:

"Could Dean really win? Unfortunately, yes. The Democratic presidential candidate has, alas, won the popular presidential vote three times in a row - twice, admittedly, under the guidance of the skilled Bill Clinton, but most recently with the hapless Al Gore at the helm. And demographic trends (particularly the growth in Hispanic voters) tend to favor the Democrats going into 2004....

But is Dean a credible alternative? ... Dean has run a terrific primary campaign, the most impressive since Carter in 1976. It's true that, unlike Carter (and Clinton), Dean is a Northeastern liberal. But he's no Dukakis. Does anyone expect Dean to be a patsy for a Bush assault, as the Massachusetts governor was?...

Will the American people grasp the need for Bush's continued leadership on November 2? If not, prepare for President Dean."