Although Al Gore's impending endorsement of Howard Dean must be disturbing news for all of the front-runner's rivals, it will strike most sharply at Joe Lieberman. John Kerry also badly wanted and needed the endorsement of Gore, who nearly selected the Massachusetts senator as his running mate in 2000.
Tomorrow, someone will probably ask Gore why he assured the nation three years ago that Lieberman was the Democrat best qualified to serve in the Oval Office should any exigency befall President Gore -- but is today less worthy of voter support than the former governor of Vermont.
If the former vice president were to answer candidly, he might admit that his own politics have shifted since 2000, when the experience of losing the presidency he had won seems to have changed him radically. The most obvious evidence of this change during the past year came in his powerful speeches against the war in Iraq and the erosion of civil liberties. A related signal is his close and continuing cooperation with MoveOn.org, which sponsored those speeches.
A year ago, Gore reentered public debate with his startling New York Observer interview about the right-wing media. Since then he has displayed little of the tentative, calculating style that did such damage to his political fortunes. In fact, the once-cautious, painfully moderate DLC Democrat from Carthage, Tenn., has sounded much more like the fiery candidate whose prospects he will do much to improve tomorrow.
In truth, the old Al Gore wouldn't have spent much time with any of these people. Lieberman may feel betrayed by his ex-running mate's decision, but he and Gore simply have very little in common anymore. Agree with Gore or not, his endorsement of Dean is a principled, brave decision by someone with an intimate understanding of what has gone wrong with the political system to which he dedicated his life.
Gore is probably no more "radical" than he ever was, which isn't radical at all in the left-wing sense. But he clearly realizes that the hard right poses a real threat to American democratic values. I suspect he also believes that the most effective defense is the kind of grass-roots movement that drives both the Dean campaign and MoveOn.
When he puts his arm around Dean, he may also wish that such an epiphany had occurred while he was still a contender.
[4:50 p.m. PST, Dec. 8, 2003]