WASHINGTON, Sept. 26 (UPI) -- Al Gore's attack on President George W. Bush's preemptive war doctrine was courageous and risk free at the same time -- a dream combination for any politician. He had nothing to lose by making it and a very great deal to gain: perhaps even the Presidency itself.
Writing in The New York Times Thursday, William Safire predictably dismissed Gore's San Francisco broadside as a "self-contradictory pushmipullyu of a speech." The really sensational news, of course, would have been if Safire found anything at all positive to say about Gore under any circumstance whatsoever.
Contrary to Safire, what Gore accomplished with his speech was the kind of political Houdini escape from an apparently impregnable cage that one only sees once in a generation. Like the hero of an old 1940s Republic Pictures movie serial, Gore appeared at the end of one episode to be doomed to extinction. But then, "with a single bound" at the beginning of the next installment, he is free again and riding high.
Before Gore gave his speech, his future political prospects appeared derisory. Democratic Party grassroots activists and power brokers alike despised him for a blowing a sure thing in losing -- by every bizarre way imaginable -- his 2000-election race to Bush. He refused to even appear over the summer at Democratic Party leadership meeting in New York where all the other 2004 presidential hopefuls strutted their wares. And the gesture added to the distrust and resentment with which he was held in such circles.
It is common for defeated presidential candidates to remain powerful, influential figures in their party and in national politics after losing. That should especially have been the case when the defeat was as narrow as Gore's -- tallying half a million more popular votes than his opponent and only losing by the turn of a few hundred votes in Florida.
But Gore's ventures into public debate had been unusually few and ineffectual. The rallying of national support around Bush after 9/11 cast the November 2000 cliffhanger in a completely different retrospective light. Bush has long carried the assurance of a landslide winner by contrast, which is, of course, exactly what he intended. Even Gore's minor personal indulgences like growing a beard and then shaving it were magnified as derisory examples of how he was supposedly "inauthentic" and obsessed with creating repeated new images for himself, each one as ineffectual and unconvincing as the last.
But now "with a single bound" Gore is free. His San Francisco speech was a return to the old "Young Turk of the Senate" Gore. It was the expression of a serious intellectual politician. It was crammed with substance, tending if anything to the policy wonky and intensely serious. It was the expression of a political leader seriously engaged with an immensely important issue who did not care what way his hair was combed.
And -- far more importantly -- it put him clear ahead of the Democratic pack in staking out a strong position of opposition to the president's go-it-alone, gung-ho policy on Iraq.
To paraphrase Capt. James T. Kirk in the classic original 1960s "Star Trek", Gore boldly dared to go where no Democratic Party man or woman had dared to go before. Even the outspoken New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, the dark horse winner of the party leadership "fashion show" in Manhattan, has not dared to come out and boldly confront Bush on Iraq. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a heroic Vietnam Navy vet, has yet to speak out so boldly. (But then, whenever poor Kerry speaks on anything, Valium sales plummet across the nation).
By any political calculus, what Gore did in San Francisco was something almost unheard of in Democratic national politics over the past 30 years. It was daring. They used to call that "leadership."
Was it politically suicidal? And will it backfire? If the president and his Pentagon planners are right, the answer to both those questions will be "Yes." If the war against Iraq goes as effortlessly, as smoothly, as quickly and as devoid of significant U.S. casualties as the war in Afghanistan did, Gore will look more like a donkey than the Democrats' own historic symbol does.
But even if that happens, what will he really have lost? He was seen as a has-been and little more than a joke outside the party and by key powerbrokers in it before San Francisco and he will just continue being seen that way again. He will have lost nothing. And in politics, as in the postbellum romantic world of "Gone With the Wind," tomorrow, as Scarlett O'Hara famously said, is always another day.
But suppose Iraq does not go as smoothly, as victoriously or as quickly as Bush and his Pentagon hawks take for granted that it will. Suppose that U.S. casualties are significant or, God forbid, worse. Suppose that, even if the war goes well, there is disastrous political "blowback" in other parts of the Muslim world, destabilizing Egypt, Saudi Arabia or even nuclear-armed Pakistan. How will Gore's San Francisco speech look then?
It will look prescient and it will look statesmanlike. And neither the president nor Gore's potential rivals for the 2004 Democratic nomination will look anything like that. People will remember. And that is a prize to gamble for worth a lot more than considerations of whether or not to grow or shave off a new beard.
Even if the war goes relatively well, Gore's San Francisco speech can still come out a winner for him. The former vice president's key support bases within the Democratic Party will be energized and activated by his speech. Probably the biggest reason he lost the election race two years ago was his failure to neutralize Ralph Nader's third party Green candidacy, which split two million votes off from him. Ten percent of those votes staying with Gore might have assured him the presidency.
But by opposing Bush's go-it-alone policy now, Gore has tended to his own key power bases within the Democratic coalition. Foes of big business, environmentalists, the immensely important African American wing of the party, isolationists, old Vietnam opponents and many others will see him as, if not an unconditional opponent of war, at least more ready to urge restraint and consideration than any other prominent Democrat. And that includes senators Clinton, Kerry and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
By staking out a separate position on such a key issue so early, Gore has ensured he will have a lot of markers owing him that he can call in when he has to a year and a half from now, during the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.
Safire dismissed Gore contemptuously as "resolved to be irresolute." As neo-conservatives invariably do, he contrasted Gore -- unfavorably of course -- with Winston Churchill's resolute opposition to Nazi tyranny in the 1930s and early 40s. But in 1956, Churchill took a very different stand when his successor Anthony Eden recklessly plunged into an invasion of Egypt with regime change again as his goal without securing the support of the United States first.
After the enterprise ended in failure, humiliation and fiasco, Churchill was asked by a close friend if he would have done the same thing. The old lion replied, "I would never have dared to do it."
It could be that Gore in San Francisco was more Churchillian than Bush, and certainly far more so than Safire would ever give him credit for. It is certainly the case that he showed himself still to be a shrewd and skilful politician, and even a leader. That is what Americans are supposed to look for in potential future presidents.