Since the trauma of the 2000 election the Democrats have endured a history of loss and defeat, not only of office and program but identity, self-confidence and self-respect. As a congressional party that lost its majority in 2002, it has seemed to be in a nightmare from which it is incapable of escaping. Republican bullying has been met almost inevitably by Democratic cowering, the ruthless will to power by timid retreat. Before this spectacle, Democratic voters have felt themselves unrepresented and voiceless. But until the presidential candidacy of Howard Dean their burning sentiments lacked expression. Now, Al Gore’s early endorsement of Dean dramatically amplifies them and partly explains them.
Above all, Democrats are consumed with a rising sense of injustice. They believe that democracy was undermined when the votes were not counted in Florida and the Supreme Court made George W. Bush president; that the social contract since the New Deal is being shredded; that the internationalist alliances since World War II are being shattered; that the president systematically and knowingly lied about the reasons for war; that the Bush administration acts with authoritarian impunity (refusing, for example, to make public even the members of Vice President Cheney’s energy policy panel); that rules and precedents in the Congress are being wantonly broken for partisan advantage by the Republicans; that the news media is being overwhelmed by the din of a right-wing echo chamber that masks itself as journalism.
In the face of constant provocation, Democrats see their own party as hesitant, compromised (if not complicit) and cowardly. “You’re either with us or the terrorists,” Bush has repeated many times. Yet, virtually unanimously, the Democrats supported the war in Afghanistan. The vast majority of Democrats in the House and Senate backed the war resolution on Iraq. None of this prevents Bush and the Republicans from challenging their patriotism. As recently as last week, after Sen. Hillary Clinton, who voted for the Iraq war, returned from an inspection tour of Afghanistan and Iraq as a member of the Armed Services Committee, a Republican Party flunky and longtime Bush family retainer named Scott Reed was trotted out to smear the former first lady as “un-American” when she called for more troops and international support.
The Democrats’ feelings toward their congressional party are inextricably linked to their feelings toward Bush. They watched Democratic legislators voting for the regressive Bush tax cuts on the notion that it would insulate them from Republican assaults in the 2002 midterm elections, only to see enough of those Democratic senators lose their seats to tip the Senate. Time and again, even liberal lions like Sen. Edward Kennedy have been bamboozled on education and Medicare, only to see their good faith turned against them and the Bush administration use the programs to undermine public education and the public health system. Somehow, the congressional Democrats have been in denial about Bush’s conservative radicalism. They preferred to believe that fundamental comity still existed even when it was being smashed. They gathered no clue about the simmering among Democratic voters from the phenomenon of Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a silver-maned irrelevance, given to florid orations on the Roman Empire, suddenly being elevated as a cult hero for his opposition to Bush on the Iraq war.
All the major Democratic candidates running for president from the Congress voted for the war resolution. Only Howard Dean, the only key noncongressional candidate in the race, stood against it. The late entry, former Gen. Wesley Clark, not only flip-flopped on the war — in effect turning himself into a congressional Democrat — but declared that he had voted for Nixon, Reagan and the elder Bush, and spontaneously volunteered that he’s for a constitutional amendment banning the burning of the U.S. flag, a hoary Republican demagogic device.
Al Gore’s endorsement of Dean is the most important since grainy film was shown at the 1992 Democratic convention depicting President John F. Kennedy shaking hands with an eager teenage Bill Clinton. Gore’s endorsement is not the passing of the torch to a new generation, but another conferring of legitimacy. For Democrats, he personifies the infamy of the last election. He is not another politician, but the rightfully elected president — by a popular majority of 539,895 votes.
But the Gore of today is not the Gore of 2000. The careful political figure trying to distance himself from Clinton and contorting his personality to project likability has been tempered by defeat. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d just let it rip,” Gore told the small group of his supporters a year ago. “To hell with the polls, the tactics, and all the rest. I would have poured out my heart and my vision for America’s future.” Gore now calls the right-wing media a “fifth column” within journalism, and he’s raising millions to build a TV network of his own as an alternative. In his own way, he’s absorbed the lessons of the past three years and become a representative Democrat. His endorsement of Howard Dean is his commentary on his campaign and the conduct of his party since.