At the end of Inherit the Wind, Henry Drummond and the genially cynical Baltimore newsman E. K. Hornbeck are left alone in the courtroom to ponder the life of the ailing Matthew Harrison Brady (not so loosely based on three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan):
Drummond: I wonder how it feels to be Almost-President three times — with a skull full of undelivered inauguration speeches.
Hornbeck: Something happens to an Also-Ran. Something happens to the feet of a man who always comes in second in a foot-race. He becomes a national unloved child, a balding orphan, an aging adolescent who never got the biggest piece of candy. Show me a shouter and I’ll show you an Also-Ran. A might-have-been. An almost-was.
When Hornbeck intoned these words at the Lyceum theater on Broadway recently, my theater companion turned to me and whispered two words: “Al Gore.” Was she right? Is Al Gore destined to be Brady, the might-have-been, the almost-was? Or will yesterday’s Also-Ran be the next president of the United States, as John Derbyshire recently predicted?
First Gore would have to run — a possibility he has consistently deprecated, but which many smart observers believe is inevitable. George Will has even constructed a loose logical proof of the fact along the following lines: Al Gore believes that climate change is an unparalleled and imminent global threat; he knows that the president is uniquely positioned to address that threat; he believes he is best qualified to mobilize the American people; ergo, if he is sincere in advocating each of these propositions, Al Gore must run for president. Q.E.D.
There is no doubt that the man who introduces himself — more in bitterness than in jest — as “the man who used to be the next-president of the United States” is still rankled by the great “What If …”; by the fact that more people voted for him than for Bush in 2000; by the conviction belief that the Supreme Court’s intervention was illegitimate; and, if he is honest with himself, by the knowledge that he choked.
He knows that the 2000 election should never have come down to a handful of Florida counties. An incumbent vice president running at a time of explosive domestic growth and relative international peace, Gore squandered an enviable inheritance. Many Democrats will never forgive him for failing to prevent the Bush presidency; it is unlikely Gore has forgiven himself. The opportunity for redemption must be tantalizing.
On the other hand, could Gore survive a second defeat? After the 2000 election, he grew a beard, ran to fat, and stumbled into the deep end of environmental alarmism. What would be the consequences of another loss? Worse — what if he ran and his own party rejected him?
It is far from certain that Gore can win the Democratic nomination. True, few candidates have the luxuries of his name-recognition and easy access to funds, which have permitted him to bide his time. But, if Gore and his supporters believe that the Democratic base is patiently waiting for him to declare, the state of the Democratic field belies such confidence.
Those afflicted with ’90s nostalgia already have Clinton Mark II, a formidable frontrunner who will give no quarter to her husband’s second-fiddle; John Edwards has outflanked Gore (and everyone to the right of Eugene Debs) on the populist front; Barack Obama opposed the Iraq war ab ovo and appeals to voters weary of “politics as usual”; and Bill Richardson boasts extensive foreign-policy credentials and executive experience. While many Republicans look to Fred Thompson or Newt Gingrich to fill the role of principled conservative in the Republican primaries, Gore doesn’t respond to any obvious absence in the Democratic field.
Even if he did win the nomination, will the American people give him a second chance? Gore’s signature issue — the cause on which he has staked his reputation — doesn’t resonate with the electorate. Asked whether the environment is an important issue, Americans mouth all the right platitudes, but ask them which issues matter most for the 2008 election and Gore’s crusade barely registers. In a recent CNN Opinion Research poll, respondents ranked global warming 13th out of 17 issues of importance to them in the next presidential election. With the Middle East in flames, the price of oil high, and border security a farce, this is not likely to change before 2008, no matter how many sparsely-attended charity concerts Gore promotes between now and then.
Gore has also made some stark demands of the American people, including an appeal to Congress to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 90 percent. How will that policy play at the pump? If Gore can see the heartland trading its pickups for sackcloth and ashes, he is an even greater visionary than his apostles claim.
And then there is the personality problem. Americans don’t like being lectured, hectored, or preached at; they will tolerate a bore in the Senate, but they won’t be ruled by one. And the new Al Gore — professor, movie star, bestselling author, Nobel nominee — remains malgré lui a crushing bore. No matter how smooth and self-deprecating his stage patter has become or how relaxed and charming he is bantering with Leonardo DiCaprio at the Oscars, under pressure he reverts to the brittle scold from the 2000 presidential debates.
When Gore testified at a congressional hearing on climate change in March, NPR described his performance as “sometimes a nerdy science teacher, sometimes a preacher and sometimes a furious grandfather.” Meet the new Al Gore, same as the old Al Gore.
Could he win despite his flaws? Any Democrat should be able to win in this political climate, but Gore has blown it before. And something happens to the feet of a man who always comes in second in a footrace.
— Howard Anglin is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.