Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Gore Redux

Robert Teeter, the great GOP pollster, used to say that presidential politics was all about getting into the raft. Teeter's theory was that in order for a candidate to be president, voters had to perceive that candidate as someone capable of handling the most severe national security crisis. If a candidate couldn't meet that standard, then he or she would never be elected president. Or as Teeter put it, if a candidate wasn't on the raft, the sharks would eat him or her alive.

Roger Ailes, the former GOP media consultant, had a different test. He used to say that if you woke someone up at 2 a.m. and told them that, say, John Kerry was president, the test of Mr. Kerry's candidacy would be whether the person awakened from slumber went right back to sleep or spent the next three hours experiencing an anxiety attack. The point of both men's maxims was and is straightforward: In presidential politics, experience matters above all else. And this is particularly true when voters believe that the nation's security is at risk.

Ever since former Vice President Gore lost what most professionals regarded as the unlose-able presidential race in 2000, elite opinion in Democratic circles and the media (which may be the same thing) has been scathing about Mr. Gore's prospects should he choose to seek the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination (which, of course, he will). It's over and he's over has been the Groundhog Day refrain. As is usually the case when media/Democratic elite opinion converges into conventional wisdom, this assessment of Mr. Gore's prospects is almost exactly wrong.

First of all, Gore has huge advantages over his prospective Democratic opponents. He is universally known among Democratic primary voters. He is fairly well regarded. He is especially well-liked among Southern Democratic primary voters. He's a proven fund-raiser and organizer of political campaigns. He speaks with authority on a range of popular Democratic issues (health and pensions, the environment and arms control). But most important, because of his long experience in government and his 8 years of service as vice president, he is perceived by most voters to be "on the raft." He is someone they can imagine as president.

Unlike, say, Sen. John Kerry. I covered the Kerry-Weld race when I worked at The Boston Globe and I can say with certainty that Senator Kerry will never be president. He's the saddest sack there ever was.

Unlike, say, Senator Hillary!. I covered a bit of her race (against Rick Lazio in 2000) and can say with certainty that her ability to "go national" is constrained. Let's leave it at that.

Unlike, say, Sen. John Edwards, the lightweight trial lawyer from North Carolina. Unlike, say, Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-SD), whose political instincts run to the trivial. Unlike, say, all of the other wannabe Democratic presidential candidates who denigrate Gore at the first sight of a microphone.

The political world, which is so insular that it imagines that presidential campaigns are all about TV and spin, has yet to take note of what the 11th of September meant to the 2004 presidential campaign. First, it means that the War on Terror (Operation Enduring Freedom) will be ongoing. Second, it means that in the great issue triad of American politics (the national security, the economy and the culture), national security will, for the first time since 1988, be a voting concern. Third, it means that whoever is going to be the Democratic presidential nominee will have to meet the Teeter/Ailes test.

The only one who does now is former Vice President Al Gore.