Sunday, June 03, 2007

Will he or won't he? -- The best person for the White House ponders his political future

By Michael J.W. Stickings

That's the key question for those of us who would support a presidential bid by Al Gore. The answer? Maybe, but probably not: As USA Today is reporting (from The Tennessean), he "said Friday that he still hasn't ruled out a presidential bid in 2008, but he doesn't expect to run and might not possess the skills necessary to be elected president now". Here's some of what he said:

-- "It may be easier to fix it from the outside. Again, I haven't ruled out for all time thinking about politics again. It's just that the way it works now, I don't think that the skills I have are the ones that are most likely to be rewarded within this system. It's like a washing machine that is permanently set on the spin cycle. It doesn't stop spinning. That creates real problems for a politics based on reason."

-- "I expect it will take a lot more time. I'm grateful for those who have a good opinion of me, to the point where they think I ought to run again, but I am not convinced myself that's the best way for me to serve."

-- "I don't think I'm very good at some of the things that the modern political system rewards and requires, and I've found other ways to make a difference and to serve the public interests. And I'm enjoying them."

He's right, of course -- about all of this. Although he's been a successful politician in the past -- and should be president now -- he understands his strengths and weaknesses well enough to know that he would have a difficult time running for office in the current political climate, a climate that, in essence, rewards style over substance, pandering to the lowest common denominator over cultivating civic virtue. He would be an excellent president, I believe, but would he be a good enough candidate to win the presidency? Maybe, but maybe not. He may still be a politician, and a political animal, but he may not be prepared to make the necessary sacrifices to run.

He is now an advocate and educator of global renown. He is a global leader on the issue that matters the most to him, the most pressing issue of our time. Why would he give that up so that he could return to the sordid world of presidential politics? Well, for the presidency, of course, and there may not be anyone in the world more qualified to be president of the United States. He has done so much good out of office. Imagine what he could do from the Oval Office.

There is still time, but here, as I see it, is one of the major obstacles to a Gore run: Gore wants to be like Ike. He doesn't seek the presidency the way, say, a careerist like Mitt Romney does. He doesn't want to be like all the other candidates, clawing to move up the next rung of the political ladder. He wants, I suspect, to be asked to run -- and he will run (or is much more likely to run) if there is enough of a demand for him to run. But is there such a demand? From many of us, yes. Gore has many supporters in the Democratic Party, there are websites backing his potential candidacy, and clearly there would be a lot of support for him if he were to run. But if there is demand, is there enough of a movement (and from the establishment, not just the base) pushing him to run? I'm not so sure.

The Republicans needed Eisenhower in '52, but I'm not sure the Democrats need Gore in '08. The top-tier candidates -- Clinton, Obama, Edwards -- are quite strong, after all. They have the support, collectively, of most of the party, and all three do very well in head-to-head polls against the top-tier Republican candidates -- Giuliani, McCain, and Romney. There may be a desire for a more progressive candidate, someone along the lines of Russ Feingold, but it's not like Clinton, Obama, and Edwards have alienated the left-wing base. There is some suspicion of Clinton as a centrist triangulator, and rightly so, but I suspect that Democrats from across the spectrum would support her.

This does not mean that Gore is not vastly superior to Clinton, Obama, and Edwards (and the rest). And it does not mean that Gore doesn't have a good deal of support. But why would he give up what he has now to run against three strong candidates, all of whom lead their Republican counterparts? I suspect there would only be enough of a movement for Gore to run if the top three Democrats collapsed and if, say, Fred Thompson energized the Republican Party, and the American people generally, and blew ahead in the polls. In other words, there likely won't be enough of a movement for Gore to run if Democrats think they can win the presidency with Clinton, Obama, or Edwards.

This, unfortunately, is the political calculation that could keep the best person for the job out of the race. But it may also be the case that Gore himself is genuinely uneasy about the prospect of re-entering the political arena. Whether or not there is a large enough demand for him to run, after all, it is ultimately his decision to make. And if he thinks that he can best "serve the public interests" by continuing to do what he is doing now -- and consider what a towering public figure he has become, his critics be damned -- then perhaps he should leave presidential politics to those who less ambivalently seek the "rewards" it has to offer.

(Not that I don't want him to run. I do. And I hope he does.)

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