Where are the Dems going?

Posted: Nov 01, 2001 12:00 AM
The listlessness of post-election life by Al Gore gives the impression that the Democratic opposition is asleep, perhaps under the hypnosis of Sept. 11. The national impulse was certainly for a consolidation of national effort after the Twin Towers attack and a surcease in partisan bickering. This point became clear when President Bush gave a speech to Congress that aroused uniform plaudits and was capped by a scene of him leaving the chamber and embracing the majority leader of the Senate.

That was affirmatively striking; negatively so was the deportment of Sen. Hillary Clinton, who was seen by the television cameras to be twitchy, bored and dismissive, clapping only perfunctorily at the president's high moments.

There are two signs of Democratic life. Al Gore has been spending a week in New Hampshire reviving old fidelities. Those of us who have long attachments to New Hampshire can with impunity remark that the only reason to spend an entire week there, if you're not going to see the foliage, is to make a political point, relating of course to the primary contest which Vice President Gore won in February 2000, decisively beating Sen. Bill Bradley. Citizens who have not detected in Mr. Gore signs of a fresh political afflatus talk more about the simple matter of his being in New Hampshire. His answers to questions about plans for the future are less interesting than the appearance of his beard.

Curiosity on this point is legitimately aroused: Why would a man living into his 50s beardless suddenly change the character of his face? Is it intended that he also change his persona? Abraham Lincoln, we all know, grew a beard after his election and before his inauguration. There are anecdotes about why he did this, but without endorsing any of them, worshippers are happy to believe that a new -- great, legendary -- Lincoln was born. I know a young man who, as of Sept. 12, ceased running a razor down his face, without exactly formulating the reason. Those who know him have an additional reason for hoping it will be a short war.

But also we have the advent of a book by Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker, flatly asserting that the election of a year ago was won by Gore, not Bush. The book is called "Too Close to Call: The Thirty-Six-Day Battle to Decide the 2000 Election."

Writing in The New York Times last Sunday to reiterate his findings, Mr. Toobin remarks, with disappointment, the diminished partisanship of the Democratic Party. He cites several examples. One is the acceptance by the Senate of Theodore Olson as solicitor general, which he tells us is not the kind of thing Sen. Jesse Helms used to do when he was pivotally situated. He cites apparent Democratic acquiescence in the next tax bill, advertised as an economic stimulus, deplored by its critics as extravagantly solicitous to big business.

Now the suggestion here is that because Gore lost the presidency, his party is disanimated; that the bipartisanship heralded after Sept. 11 is a kind of lazy capitulation to the fatal miscount in Florida.

In raising this point so adamantly, Mr. Toobin is telling us that a series of decisions made in Florida, together with inanimate Democratic political behavior, contrasted with ardent Republican-generated pressures, resulted not merely in an election lost but in democratic travesty. No one is disposed to doubt that it made a difference whether the White House was occupied by a Republican or a Democrat. Of course it makes a difference, if you want a facile way of putting it, whether the president is more attentive to labor-union leaders than to business entrepreneurs.

But the point not made here by Mr. Toobin, or in New Hampshire by Mr. Gore, is that the extraordinary historic challenge before the country is not affected, at least not yet, by the chance victory of the Republican over the Democrat. It may be, down the road a few months or years, that the accommodationist impulses of Democratic liberals, under a President Gore, would have diminished national purpose. We do know that Gore has said that he approves not only the steps President Bush has taken, but also the strategy he has set upon.

That acquiescence was symbolized in that presidential embrace of Sen. Tom Daschle. The question will forever engage the attention of historians and electoral technicians -- who actually won in Florida? But no one has successfully pleaded that our foreign policy has been significantly affected by the outcome. And, come to think of it, indignation over the confirmation of Theodore Olson hasn't yet been generated. Leading us to wonder what Mr. Gore will end by telling his party in New Hampshire; and acknowledging the work of Mr. Toobin not as emergency treatment, but as postmortem.